Local News

Investigators: Arson to Blame for Scrap Yard Fire

Posted May 21, 2007 8:01 p.m. EDT
Updated May 22, 2007 9:33 a.m. EDT

— Investigators say a fire at a Johnston County scrap yard was no accident. Smithfield police and fire officials are calling the fire at Atlantic Scrap and Processing a case of arson.

Smithfield Mayor Norman Johnson, who is also a former Smithfield Fire Chief, said he suspected arson.

"I was suspicious even the night of the fire because of the location of the three fires," Johnson said.

Three separate fires broke out in the scrap yard on April 30. The largest of the three was in the middle of the back field of cars with the other two 100 to 300 yards away.

Investigators said there is no way the large fire sparked the other two because the wind was blowing the opposite direction.

Smithfield Police Lt. Keith Powell would not comment on other evidence found at the scene, but called it a difficult case. Agents with the State Bureau of Investigation have been called in to examine evidence.

The scene is large and they still have to interview employees and others connected to the company, Powell said.

When Atlantic Scrap is up and running, it's a busy place. Company spokesperson Bill Perry said it's what's known as a large processing site.

The company breaks down scrap metal from things like junk cars and sells the material for recycling. Perry says on average there are 100 customers a day in and out of the facility. Large truckloads of scrap are running in and out of the yard.

"We were a victim," Perry said. "We were not reckless operators."

Initially, Steve Earp, attorney for the company, speculated that the cause was accidental and pointed to the process in which metal is broken down.

Earp said the same scenario could have played out in another major fire at the site back in October. That fire's cause is undetermined. Now, some are wondering if the first fire was suspicious too.

"We never had reason to believe it could be arson," Johnson said.

Much of the evidence was in scrap metal that was broken down and sold off.

"Unless someone talks, we may never know what happened there," Johnson said.

The mayor hopes there will be answers this time.

"Yes, we need to know who did it. It's the only way we can resolve it," he said.

Investigators said there's no way they can speculate on whether the suspect might be someone inside or outside the company. Perry said employees were in a safety meeting at the time.

The company is currently working to prevent a major fire like this in the future.

There will soon be an 8-inch water main around the property and additional fire hydrants inside. Smithfield firefighters can hook up to the system from the street.

Small fires aren't uncommon at scrap yards when pieces of metal go through the grinding process. The company even has a fire team on site.