Clover mill has history of fires

CLOVER -- The Clover fire chief on Tuesday criticized safety measures at a downtown textile plant and said its employees could be at risk without changes, one day after a blaze that kept firefighters busy for most of the night.

CloverTex has caught fire at least five times over the past 10 years, according to local officials and plant owner David Roberts.

"There's lack of maintenance over there, in my opinion," said Charlie Love, who heads the 22-man Clover Fire Department. "I can remember a time when that mill used to stay spotless, and you didn't have any problem. The people now, it seems like they want the fire to clean it out for them."

About 25 employees were working when a fire broke out around 8:30 p.m. Monday at the plant just west of U.S. 321. All were evacuated safely, said Roberts, who stood outside as the blaze was subdued.

The next day, Roberts defended his company's practices. He said the building is equipped with sprinklers and that employees are trained in how to react to emergencies. The plant, which employs about 150 people in a round-the-clock operation, reopened Tuesday night. It suffered mostly water damage.

"We spend a lot of time with our employees on, No. 1, how to prevent fires and, No. 2, how to react when and if you do have a fire," Roberts said. "That's why something like this can be contained well."

CloverTex workers make cotton yarns for clothing designers such as Eddie Bauer, Tommy Hilfiger and Nike. Employees are being asked to work on Sunday, when the plant is normally closed, to make up for the lost time, Roberts said.

Firefighters reported Monday night that flames weren't visible from outside the plant. Instead, small plumes of smoke floated above smoldering hot spots.

Clover, York, Bethel and Bethany firefighters stayed on the scene as late as 4 a.m. Tuesday, spraying water from ladders and using thermal imaging cameras to search for trouble.

Neighbors watched from their front porches as crews went about their work. For many, it wasn't a new experience. The plant caught fire last year, as well as in 2004.

No authority

To determine whether its fire safety measures are sufficient, the CloverTex plant, built in the 1960s, gets an annual "courtesy inspection" from the town of Clover, the fire chief said. The town has suggested changes on several occasions over the past few years.

For example, it asked CloverTex to cover exposed electrical outlets and take steps to cut down on lint blowing free near machinery, town officials said. Improvements have been made on a "hit and miss" basis, Love said. Without upgrades, Love said, employees are being left at a greater risk than they would be otherwise.

For his part, Roberts, 53, said the plant has acted on some recommendations and is always considering other ways to improve.

"It's easier said than done," said Roberts, who lives in Shelby, N.C. "It's easy to say what would be the most desirable thing. To implement that in a 24-hour operation is always a challenge to management."

Town officials say they try to inspect local businesses at least once a year. The task is handled by David Green, a volunteer firefighter who also works for the Charlotte Fire Department.

But because the volunteer isn't a certified inspector, Clover does not have authority to enforce any changes it suggests, Love said. He hopes the town can get an inspector soon.

It's unclear which other government agencies, if any, do have authority. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration said it is not responsible because textile plants typically don't fall under its jurisdiction.

For OSHA to take on inspection duties, one of three things must happen:

• A complaint from an employee;

• An incident resulting in a death or the hospitalization of at least three employees;

• A classification on a so-called high-hazard list kept by the U.S. Department of Labor.

"The industry itself has a pretty good safety record," said Jim Knight, a spokesman for the state OSHA office. "They're doing a good job as far as addressing safety and health issues. And the equipment used at plants has improved over the years. There's a lot of automation that takes place today that wasn't there years ago."

Textile fires are familiar

A cause is unclear in Monday night's fire, but last year's blaze started when wire became caught in a filter machine and began to spark, causing flames to break out in the ventilation, fire officials said.

The case represents the latest in a string of recent fires at textile plants across York and Chester counties.

An epic blaze in Great Falls two years ago is the most severe example. In that case, the J.P. Stevens No. 3 mill burned for more than a week, sending toxic fumes into the air and forcing the evacuation of 1,200 nearby residents.

Four years ago, a fire destroyed a wooden wing of the Manetta Mills complex in the northeastern Chester County town of Lando. Eleven years ago, the Arcade Mill just west of downtown Rock Hill was destroyed in a blaze that started in a finishing room where cloth was stored.

Last summer in Rock Hill, flames broke out at the Rock Hill Printing & Finishing Co., better known as the Bleachery, long a source of worry among emergency planners.

Firefighters fought the blaze from their ladders and used the building's multitude of compartments to act as a buffer, keeping flames from spreading.

In Clover on Monday night, crews used a similar approach. They worried about dust and lint traveling quickly through the air, knowing it could spread sparks that cause hidden fires, said York Fire Chief Domenic Manera, whose crew responded Monday in a backup role.

This time, darkness added another layer of danger.

"You have a fire like what we had last night, firefighters can get lost," Manera said. "There's a lot of things that can happen. When you've got a facility that large, you have no power, very limited visibility. It puts the firefighters in a unique situation."