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Concerns raised about fire site in 2008

By EVAN BEVINS

The Parkersburg News and Sentinel

PARKERSBURG, W.Va.  — Nine years ago, a trio of fire departments fought an electrical fire at a warehouse at the former Ames plant off Camden and Broadway avenues.

Among them was the Lubeck Volunteer Fire Department, whose chief, Mark Stewart, is the incident commander of the current fire that brought a 350,000-square-foot portion of the complex to the ground Saturday and continues to burn.

About three weeks after the 2008 fire, Stewart and his Washington Bottom Volunteer Fire Department counterpart, K.C. Linder, sent a letter to the West Virginia Fire Marshal’s office expressing concerns about the warehouse at the Ames site and another in Washington, W.Va., both belonging to Polymer Alliance Services.

PAS is part of the SirNaik group of companies, which own and operate the International Export-Import Inc. venture at the former Ames facility.

“The Lubeck VFD was called to the site for a fire recently and could not even access the fire due to boxes stacked along the exterior of the warehouse, closing the alley,” says the letter, a copy of which was provided by Lawrence Messina, director of communications for the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety.

The letter says the warehouse on the old Ames property has similar issues to the one in Washington. Among those cited for the Washington building were a water supply that appeared inadequate to fight fires; boxes of plastics stacked within 18 inches of sprinkler heads, “making them ineffective;” and hazardous materials “stored randomly throughout the warehouse in unlabeled storage containers.”

“Our primary concern is that there will be a fire at one of these two warehouses, and there will not be enough water to fight a defensive fire,”the letter says. “We do plan to fight these defensively at this time, because we do not feel the structures are safe enough to send firefighters into.

“The biggest concern though is for firefighters’ safety,” it continues. “Boxes stacked too high, and inefficient sprinkler (sic) could kill firefighters working interior.”

The letter asks for unannounced inspections of each warehouse. Another document provided by Messina shows an inspection report for the 3801 Camden Ave. location two days after the state received the letter. It lists five fire code requirements with which the facility was not in compliance. Among them were inadequate aisle space between rows of products, inadequate space in front of electrical panels, exits blocked throughout the warehouse, a dumpster blocking a fire hydrant and an exit sign hanging by its wires.

An August 2008 letter from the PAS manager to the inspector says the company has “been working on correction every day since you were here. We had a meeting with Washington and Lubeck VFD to see if there were any other problems that they could see that would need taken care of to make sure it is safe if they are ever needed to come in the buildings.”

The letter from the fire chiefs says the sprinkler system at the building “was not functional and in disrepair.” Messina said Monday that records indicate the sprinkler system was operational at the time of the 2008 inspection, but that was the most recent information on the building, which was not subject to a regular inspection schedule.

Parkersburg Utility Board Manager Eric Bennett said Tuesday that the building did not have an active sprinkler system currently, noting the company discontinued service for the system with the utility.

Whether the facility was required to have a working sprinkler system is under investigation, Messina said.

“The contents of a warehouse would dictate whether a sprinkler system would be required,” he said. “Officials must confirm the contents of this building before they can make that determination retrospectively.”

However, the fire code requires that the existing sprinkler system had to be maintained and operational or completely dismantled, Messina said.

In 2012, eight fire departments battled a blaze at the former Ames site, but Parkersburg Fire Chief Jason Matthews said that was a different building in the complex, 3307 Camden Ave.

Sunny Naik of IEI said he could not discuss the facility Wednesday, noting he is still working with state and local officials on the current situation.

A call to Stewart about the conditions at the plant when the current fire broke out was not immediately returned.

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