Columnist

Firefighters remember dangers of 2009 Rock Hill Bleachery fire

July 5, 2014 

A squad of Rock Hill firefighters had just handed off searching the old Bleachery textile mill, engulfed by an intentionally set fire a week earlier, when they saw smoke.

Then more smoke. Then still more.

Another squad of firefighters was on the roof that day – July 10, 2009. Others were in another part of the building.

“We saw puffs of smoke and joked, saying, ‘It can’t be more fire,’ ” Capt. Scott Long said, five years later.

But it wasn’t more fire; it was another fire, set by the same guys who had set the July 3 fire that required the department’s every firefighter – both on-duty and off-duty – to contain it in a week of work. The fire was so huge, smoke could be seen in Charlotte and Chester, 25 miles away.

The fires were the single-largest use of fire department manpower and resources in the city’s history.

Two men would later plead guilty to setting both fires that destroyed a Rock Hill landmark, the huge plant that was sitting idle near downtown with hopes for development. They admitted later that they had heard firefighters walking around on the roof and in other rooms.

Still, they set fires again that could have hurt or killed these firefighters, who had been at the scene in shifts for a week.

Firefighters inside the building saw two men running away. Moments later, fire roared again.

“That second time, it was just pitch black, so it made us more cautious,” said firefighter Jimmy Jones, who fought the fire on July 3 and July 10. “I wouldn’t say I was scared. I was anxious.”

Jones is the size of a front-end loader. He could sell advertising space on the back of his uniform shirt, it is so wide with muscle. His only direction is forward. Only a fire like this one could make this guy anxious.

“And it was just so hot,” said firefighter Kevin Steele, a tough guy with the nickname “Skinny” and a history of saves. “The Bleachery could have been a tragic memory if it wasn’t for all of us working together.”

The fires at the Bleachery – more formally known as the Rock Hill Printing & Finishing Co. – were by almost any measure the largest in Rock Hill history.

More than 12 million gallons of water were used.

It cost the city $60,000 to fight the fires and millions more afterward to buy the property and demolish the rubble.

Pictures of the fire taken from ground and sky were seen around the country.

‘We didn’t let it’

Capt. Jason Dillon was inside the building on July 10 when the fire was set. His wife tried and tried to reach him on a cellphone, but she could not. Like all wives of firefighters, she was frantic with despair as she watched the fire live online and on TV.

“That fire could have been one of Rock Hill’s darkest moments,” Dillon said. “But it wasn’t, because we didn’t let it.”

Long and Dillon – the two senior officers inside the building on July 10 – decided to attack the fire with their crew after getting the go-ahead from incident commanders outside. That was different from July 3, when incident commander Joe Mitchell, a battalion chief, knew upon arrival that he was not sending firefighters in.

Instead, firefighters focused for days on keeping the first fire from jumping to nearby homes and other buildings.

“I made the decision soon after we arrived at the first fire on July 3,” Mitchell said, “that I was not putting firefighters at risk for abandoned buildings.”

The first fire was so big that people on a couple of streets on the north side of the building complex had to be evacuated. Firefighters were worried for days about saving nearby buildings. Officers positioned trucks and firefighters in a perimeter to keep the fire from jumping.

Volunteer fire departments pitched in with trucks and men. Other city workers helped with water pressure changes, traffic and more. The city was at a standstill on July 3 as the fire burned. Former Bleachery workers at what had been the largest single plant in America – until it closed in the 1990s – watched their past burn.

On July 10, firefighters inside the building tried to put one fire out by pushing it down a hallway to have it extinguished through windows. But the windows had been blocked over. Still, these firefighters with wives and kids pushed on in total darkness – using guide ropes and lights, arms at each others’ shoulders – to try to save the building that city leaders hoped one day would be converted for commercial use.

There was no saving much of it, though.

“Basically, it created an oven,” Dillon said of the fire’s reaching concrete and brick walls, with no place to go.

“It was just so hot,” recalled Steele.

The firefighters, hot and tired, had to do what firefighters do not like to do – they turned back.

Captains and battalion chiefs – even the fire chief himself – had taken the information sent by firefighters inside the building. All agreed that the firefighters inside the building had to come out. They had to change to a more defensive operation.

The fires set around the old building grew for a while. Flames shot 40, 50, 60 feet into the air. Other firefighter shifts were again called in to help suppress the fires. After several hours, the fire was contained. In a few days, finally, almost two weeks after the first fire was set, the Bleachery fires were history.

The building itself would follow into history. The city eventually bought the property for $5 million and spent more to tear down much of what was left. The site soon will be home to what will be called Knowledge Park – a high-tech center of business, retail and residential projects that city leaders hope will transform the city.

Firefighters were able to save the Bleachery’s iconic smokestacks, and they will be part of the future – along with a million-dollar water tower that will light up at night.

A beacon of blue lights, not fire.

‘A little scared’

At the time of the 2009 fires, the Bleachery area south and west of Winthrop University had many in the city on edge. The old buildings had been home to vagrants and vandals before the fires, as the property’s owners tried ways to start development.

Fire beat them to it.

“There was a fire set there in 2007,” said Battalion Chief Mark Simmons, “so we had been there before and knew the layout – that there were holes in the floors from machines taken out and other hazards.”

Firefighters knew about floors covered with oil and grease and more, like matchbooks waiting to be struck.

Fire department training and planning before 2009 included knowing the floor plans, water supply and more, Fire Chief Mike Blackmon said. But knowing what to do in case the 24-acre site caught fire – and actually sending in firefighters, risking lives to keep the fire from spreading into nearby neighborhoods – is something else entirely.

“It is a lot harder sending someone into harm’s way than going in yourself,” said Capt. Mac Thomas. “You are responsible for those people. You send them.”

Thomas in 2006 had sent 21 firefighters into burning apartments in Rock Hill to save the occupants and buildings. He did that after years of doing the saving himself. He never hesitated in either job.

Dozens of Rock Hill firefighters on July 3 and July 10 – and all days in between and after – never stopped to ask if they should.

Dillon admits that he was “anxious” during the July 10 firefighting, but that didn’t stop him and others. He even used words that firefighters do not like to use – “a little scared.”

Who could blame him? None of the firefighters could answer calls from worried family, who were watching live footage of the fire and it was clear some firefighters were inside.

Prison for arsonists

Remarkably, nobody was injured while fighting the fires. Some suffered minor health problems brought on by the heat.

After 12 days, on July 15, 2009, the fires were over – but the image of smoke in the sky, of firefighters inside a burning building remained.

Rock Hill fire investigators Rusty Myers, Otis Driggers and Travis McDaniel spent days digging through rubble to find evidence and document it.

The two men who pleaded guilty to arson, Matthew Wallace and Christopher Anderson, served prison time. They admitted spray-painting graffiti and setting the fires just for kicks.

They were caught only after someone at the public library saw them looking at news footage of the havoc they had created – chuckling and talking about how they were now somebodies. Police records showed they had been booked for brazenly trespassing on the Bleachery site in the days between the fires.

Wallace, now 23, was sentenced to five years in prison. He was released from prison in 2012 and remains on probation, state officials said.

Anderson, who pleaded guilty but mentally ill and was sentenced to 10 years, is still in prison after failed attempts over the past two years to get parole. He has another parole hearing scheduled for Aug. 27, said Pete O’Boyle, spokesman for the state Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services.

If Anderson is not granted parole in August, he is scheduled for release in 2015. Even though his sentence was 10 years, prison credits for time served would mean he had “maxed out” of his sentence.

Charges of assault with intent to kill – the victims being the firefighters inside the buildings when the July 10 fires were set – were dismissed when Wallace and Anderson agreed to plead guilty to arson.

‘That’s what we do’

After what likely was the most dangerous day in the history of the Rock Hill Fire Department, not a single firefighter quit.

These firefighters who still are on the job, risking their lives for us, did not even know last week that Wallace already had been released from prison or that Anderson was scheduled for release next year. They don’t follow the court cases and didn’t complain when the assault with intent to kill charges were dropped.

They just went back to work.

“We are just glad that old building is torn down,” said Thomas, the captain who fought both fires.

The firefighters saved the old Lowenstein building, now the focal point of the future Knowledge Park, and another building that could have been destroyed if the fires had spread. No nearby homes were damaged.

The fires will be remembered for the size, the heat, the enormity of the flames and smoke that could be seen in two states and were seen across America – but not for any loss of life or other property.

Chief Blackmon, who started out as a trainee more than 30 years ago, who only orders firefighters to do what he did himself for years, said simply, “That’s what we do.”

All these firefighters got a laugh out of it, because that line has become a part of department lore.

It turns out that Steele – coincidentally on July 10, 2003 – rushed into a burning house to retrieve a man’s medication. When he emerged, he said, “That’s what we do.”

He has been taking a razzing for more than a decade.

In coming years, Rock Hill leaders will show off the buildings of Knowledge Park. Plaques will go up. Politicians of both parties will boast of what they did to make it happen. Press conferences will be held.

No firefighter will be at any of those events.

These firefighters, who get no plaques on walls, who work 24-hour shifts, will be on call in case Rock Hill’s new iconic buildings – the city’s future – are in danger.

That’s what they do.

Andrew Dys •  803-329-4065 •  adys@heraldonline.com

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