April 20, 2014

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Inferno consumes 2-story warehouse


Wellington building was storage site for furniture company

WELLINGTON – A monstrous fire ripped through a two-story brick building near downtown Wellington on Monday, ravaging the structure and its contents and testing the limits of more than 80 firefighters who spent hours battling the blaze.

The spectacular scene that destroyed the building unfolded at 1:10 p.m., when Wellington firefighters first received calls that a DeWolf Street building was on fire, said Wellington Assistant Fire Chief Mike Wetherbee.

BRUCE BISHOP / CHRONICLE
Oberlin firefighters watch as part of a storage facility for Hemlock Cottage Furniture collapses Monday. More than 80 firefighters fought the blaze for hours.

An initial attack crew of eight Wellington firefighters arrived within minutes to find heavy smoke pouring from the building, which served as a storage facility for Hemlock Cottage Furniture and also houses a small packaging company, Will-DO Packaging, Wetherbee said.

“The fire load in this building was just tremendous,” Wetherbee said. “It just took the path of least resistance through the furniture store and then went from there.”

Wellington Fire Chief Bob Walker said the only injury was to an Oberlin firefighter, who was treated on scene for minor smoke inhalation.

When the fire broke out in the northeast portion of the building, there was a single worker in the furniture-storage area. But there also was a crew of four or five employees working at Will-DO Packaging at the time, said the building`s owner, Blair Hodgson, who also owns Hemlock Cottage Furniture.

Among the workers at Will-DO Packaging were Julie Meglich, 36, Lindsey Wade, 18, and Lindsey`s mother, Judy Wade.

The three said they were outside smoking on the south side of the building when someone yelled that there was a fire inside. Meglich said she and the others looked back into the building and had a straight line of sight to the north wall, where they saw smoke and a bit of flames.

The other workers said they heard nothing unusual – no explosions or notable popping sounds.

When the first firefighters arrived, all of the employees were out of the building, Wetherbee said.

“We put guys on the front and rear and attacked each corner,” Wetherbee said. “About 10 to 15 minutes later, the mutual aid started pouring in.”

The west half of the brick building is a one-story area that has iron girders as roof rafters, though that area was also packed with furniture being stored by Hemlock Cottage – a perfect fuel for a large blaze, Wetherbee said.

The fire appeared to originate in the northeast corner of the building, but quickly worked its way west toward the stored furniture, Wetherbee said.

At about 2 p.m., firefighters were focused on the furniture area, training multiple hoses on that portion as huge spirals of fire jutted from the roof. Wetherbee said crews were hampered by dwindling water pressure with so many fire hoses tapped into the same system.

The decision was made to have water tankers draw water from the rural waterlines, then shuttle the water back to makeshift holding tanks at the corner of Taylor Street and state Route 58, just a few hundred feet from the scene.

“With a fire of this magnitude, it`s hard to get enough water even out of the city system,” Wetherbee said. “The entire scene became a perfectly choreographed production: Tankers from 16 or 17 fire departments – Litchfield, Grafton, Ruggles-Troy, Columbia Township, Rochester Township and others – dumped 7,200-gallon and 5,500-gallon loads into the storage tanks, then headed back to rural fire hydrants to draw more water.

Traffic was blocked at multiple intersections, while throngs of people crowded the streets and the Red Cross set up a staging area.

All the while, the ferocious blaze burned hot and hard, chewing its way into the eastern half of the building – a two-story structure built in 1895, when enormous wood support beams were used. The packaging company also ships cleaning sponges, Wetherbee said, which may have exacerbated the blaze.

A strange yellow smoke crept up from the fire in that portion of the building, and as it grew in intensity, four neighboring homes quickly became the target for firefighters` hoses.

The east wall eventually collapsed, sending a heap of bricks and burning debris onto a Saturn sedan that was parked below; the car was demolished, though its horn went going off for a good 15 minutes before finally dying.
DeWolf Street resident Don Bement worked frantically to place plywood boards in front of a truck and car in his driveway – an effort to deflect heat from fire that was less than 80 feet away.
Minutes before 3 p.m., the south wall of the building collapsed, sending two stories of bricks and mortar spilling onto DeWolf Street and into Bement`s driveway.
Residents said it looked like a bomb went off – like something out of World War II.
“I just looked back to see if my kid was OK, and I saw it coming,” Bement said. “The fireman hollered to look out, but I already saw it coming.”
Bement`s son, Brad, 14, was standing in the driveway when the wall had collapsed behind him, sending a heap of rubble and smoke and debris into the air.
“I was standing next to the truck and I saw it crack, so I jumped down behind the truck,” Brad said. “I had to take cover.”
Firefighters trained their hoses on the two-story portion`s innards, where a colossal wall of fire was spiraling from the wind and heat and causing 20-feet sections of corrugated metal roofing to float around like scraps of foil.
The siding on the front of Bement`s home began wrinkling and curling from the heat.
The wind pushed thick billows of smoke north across the railroad tracks, largely sparing the downtown area and surrounding homes. Other residents scrambled to move their cars from their driveways, fearful the building`s other walls would crumble onto them.
Wetherbee said fire crews were restricted to an entirely exterior attack because the fire rendered the building unstable. Even with the exterior attack, the crews had to stay about 15 feet from the building, a “collapse zone” that served as a buffer in case the walls kept falling.
Shortly after 4 p.m., firefighters had crushed the brunt of the blaze, though thick smoke and stubborn embers were still visible. The outer walls of the two-story portion remained.
At about 6 p.m., Wetherbee suspected that crews would be on scene for at least another six hours, using excavating equipment to knock down the remaining walls and kill any remaining hotspots in the rubble.
While firefighters are still investigating the blaze, Hodgson – the owner of the 20,000-square-foot building – said initial reports he received from firefighters indicate that the fire may have started from an electrical problem.
The building is worth about $150,000, according to the county auditor`s Web site, but Hodgson said he was storing a number of orders for the holiday season.
He`s owned the business for about 35 years, but has been in Wellington for about 12 of those years.
“These things happen,” Hodgson said. “I guess it`s like that commercial: ‘Life comes at you fast.` ”
For Wellington firefighters, perhaps too fast. In August, Wellington crews fought a large blaze at the Wager/POV Products store on Depot Street, which is just two blocks from the Hemlock Furniture building that burned Monday.
The POV building suffered major damage, and the cause of that fire was never determined.
“It`s unusual to have two places this big go up in the same year,” Wetherbee said.
Contact Shawn Foucher at 652-6255 or sfoucher@chroniclet.com.