Robbins, N.C. — More than 200 firefighters labored for 12 hours to contain a multiple-alarm blaze at the former Milliken textile plant on Sunday, Moore County emergency officials said.
A 911 caller reported the fire shortly before 10 a.m., Carlton Cole, Moore County's director of public safety, said. Firefighters requested assistance when they arrived, because heavy fire already engulfed the building and flames were coming out of the roof.
"This is the largest structure fire that we've had in several years," Cole said.
More than 35 departments from five counties – including all 17 in Moore – conducted defensive operations for most of the day. A short offensive in the late evening managed to save part of the 286,000-square-foot industrial plant at 200 South Kennedy St.
Firefighters were concerned about protecting about 20 small houses near the mill, Jeff Harkey, of FireNews.net, said.
"In a large operation, it's definitely more difficult to keep everyone out of harms' way, but we've got systems in place to do that," Cole said. "And, hopefully, when everything's set and done, that's what we've accomplished."
Residents evacuated in a three-block radius around the plant were allowed to return home by 10 p.m. Major roads around the plant were also been reopened. A shelter at North Moore High School went unused by evacuees.
The plant was unoccupied, and no injuries have been reported. One firefighter was treated for heat exhaustion.
"With all the fire gear they have on, it's so hot with it on," said volunteer Sandy Dawkins, who helped treat tired firefighters. "This just kinda keeps them going."
Firefighting efforts put a strain on the city's water supply, and a small, nearby lake could not meet firefighters' needs, emergency officials said. Crews trucked in water from other locations and used a huge, makeshift tub to fill up trucks.
Firefighters used heavy equipment to create a fire break between the front of the building and the back where the blaze burned.
Moore County paramedics, Robbins Rescue and the American Red Cross provided assistance to the firefighters, Cole said.
Investigators said that the fire started in the back of the mill, but they have not determined its cause. Agents from the State Bureau of Investigation and U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Fire arrived at the scene to help in the investigation.
Firefighters planned to stay on the scene overnight and keep an eye out for flareups. They were looking for additional crews to relieve firefighters who had been battling the blaze all Sunday.
The vacant plant had recently been sold. The new owners said that workers were in the front of the plant on Friday.
Residents said the textile plant had been a fixture in the community for decades and was once the largest employer in northern Moore. Former mill worker Fermon Davis said that 57 years ago, he met his bride there.
"She was a cute, little thing, weighed 95 pounds, brown eyes and black hair," Davis said.
Former Sen. John Edwards, a native of Robbins, used the mill as a backdrop to announce his run for president in September 2003.
"I've come home to stand in the shadow of the mill where my father worked, where I worked as a young boy and where I learned the values of hard work and a hard day's work," Edwards said in the announcement.
Davis said he felt sad to see the old mill burn.
"Fire will take away the building, but the memories, it don't take them away," he said.