YORK -- A historic loss has turned into a modern-day mystery, and the York Fire Department is asking the community to help solve it.
The fire on Thursday that engulfed the century-old Lockmore Mill on Hunter Street appears "suspicious," said York Fire Chief Domenic Manera.
"It would be easy to come in here and say 'Accidental fire. Case closed. Let's all go home and enjoy supper,'" Manera said during a press conference on Monday afternoon. "The pieces are just not falling into place where we can do that at this point in time."
Instead, he opted to ask for help.
Investigators want to know what neighbors saw or heard the night of the fire, regardless of if it's hearsay or not, Manera said.
"Let us determine whether it's credible or not," Manera said.
The red brick cotton mill, which had been out of operation since the 1960s, was in the midst of a multi-million dollar renovation project when it caught fire shortly after 7 p.m. Only a right-side wing was saved. It was York's biggest fire in a decade, drawing some 50 firefighters from York, Clover and Newport. Smoke could be seen from miles away.
Earlene McClain, who lives on Hunter Street, said she just happened to look outside that night and saw smoke. She called 911 and was told firefighters were already on their way.
"I went door-to-door telling everybody because I didn't know if they were going to evacuate because the smoke was so thick," she said.
Since the flames spread so quickly, crews opted to let the main building burn to save as much water as possible given the region's drought conditions, Manera said. Despite efforts to save water, 200,000 to 300,000 gallons were used to control the flames, said Charles Helms, interim city manager.
While they haven't ruled out all accidental causes, the pattern of the fire is unusual, Manera said.
"There are a lot of things with the burns and the structure over there that we have not been able to answer," he said.
The contractors also felt some things were out of place when they returned after the fire, Manera said.
"A couple things do not appear to be as they left them," Manera said.
Asked if investigators knew where the fire started, Manera said: "We have determined the areas where the fires started." He declined to confirm if that meant the fire started in more than one spot.
If any accelerants were used to start the fire, evidence would probably have been lost in the blaze, he said.
Several witnesses reported hearing an explosion around the time the fire started. Investigators aren't sure whether explosives were used to start the fire, Manera said Tuesday.
"We went back and looked at the 911 tapes and had a couple calls and some eyewitnesses who said they heard an explosion, but that could have been as simple as the windows blowing out when it was getting more air," he said. "At this point in time we're waiting for some samples to come back from the state law enforcement division."
Investigators have talked to a couple of people who were at the scene.
"Our primary reason we want to talk to them is to see what they saw, because they were there early on," Manera said.
Michael Childers has lived down the street from the mill for 50 years and went to see the fire after it started.
"If somebody did that, they were awful brave to do it in the daylight," he said.
His grandparents worked there when it was thriving.
"This was a mill village right here. That was their livelihood," he said. "I hate to see the old mill go."
Project to continue
Prior to the fire, the mill was being converted into an apartment complex for seniors to be called Hunters Bay, said Ryan Toblin, project manager with Rehab Builders, a subsidiary of Landmark Group of Winton Salem, N.C.
The company has headed up several local historic rehabilitation projects, including the Rose Hotel on Congress Street in York and the former Highland Park mill in Rock Hill.
Crews had been working at the mill since February, cleaning it out and stabilizing the structure. There was no electricity in the building.
About six Rehab Builder employees and five day laborers were working at the site on Thursday prior to the fire, Toblin said. The crew left between 5:30 and 6 p.m. Workers didn't report seeing anything unusual before they left, said Manera and Toblin.
The building was insured, and Landmark hopes to continue to develop the site into about 40 apartments.
"It was a beautiful building that we wanted to preserve," said Mike Massoglin, Landmark spokesman. "In the absence of that, we still want to move forward with creating the affordable housing that's so sorely needed for seniors."
Landmark had planned on paying for the project with low-income tax credits and historic property tax credits. The company hasn't determined whether it'll be eligible for historic property tax credits now that the building is gone. Landmark has experience with both new and rehabilitative work, Massoglin said.
"The key is to make the most appealing living place for seniors, whether that is with the renovation of an old structure or construction of something new on the same footprint," he said.
A historic loss
Many in York are saddened by the loss of the building, which has long been a landmark for the Hunter Street community and all of York.
"It just breaks my heart," Helms said. "It was a beautiful historical building."
The Lockmore Mill was one of York's first textile mills. It started around 1903 as a place to manufacture cotton, said York Mayor Eddie Lee, who teaches history at Winthrop University.
It was one of four mills that operated in the area at the time. It also became the first to close in 1963, he said. The mill was more than just an economic anchor for the city, he said.
For many, it was the center of life.
"Their whole lives revolved around that mill," Lee said. "That was their town. They had their own store. They went to schools with other mill people. It was kind of a self-contained village."
All that remains now is smoldering rubble and memories.
"This facility meant a lot to the York community and we want to make sure that we leave no stone uncovered," Manera said.
Authorities are asking anyone with information to call an arson hotline at 1-800-92-ARSON or York Police at 684-4141.