By Jeff Keeling
Both Grant Summers and Gary Mabrey were hundreds of miles from Johnson City at 9:17 p.m. Sunday when Johnson City police officers responded to a possible burglary at the Model Mill.
Fortunately for the president of Summers-Taylor Inc. and the CEO of the local Chamber of Commerce – and for the growing legion of locals supporting the mill’s proposed historic renovation – neither Johnson City’s police department nor its fire department were far away. Nor were firefighters lax or lacking in full force when they received a call nine minutes after the police officers were dispatched.
A full assault on the fire that appeared to engulf the century-old mill’s two-story east end for several hours Sunday night – combined with the massive timber floors below its third-floor attic and its solid brick construction – appears to have resulted in what most would consider minimal damage.
Prior to the firefighting, police officers detained a person whom they encountered inside the mill after responding to the 9:17 call. As of Monday afternoon, that person was in the hospital but was a “person of interest” in relation to the cause of the fire.
The word on damage from Johnson City Fire Chief Mark Scott, delivered in a Monday afternoon news conference, was about as positive of news as could have been hoped for to the ears of Summers and Chamber of Commerce CEO Mabrey.
“The roof area on the east end of the building sustained significant damage as well as that third floor area,” Scott said. “The other parts of the building received some water damage, but are not, other than that, affected.”
Summers, who with his father Rab is set to purchase the mill from the Chamber of Commerce and historically renovate it, said Monday the fire department’s good work appeared to have left the building still able to be repaired.
“It didn’t wreck it structurally,” Summers said late Monday afternoon while meeting at the mill site with crews from Summers-Taylor Inc. The company, of which Summers is president, would move its corporate headquarters into the two floors directly below the fire site should the purchase (set for early 2017) and renovation go forward.
“The roof is obviously a complete loss, and the structural members underneath the roof, but the floors below it seem relatively okay. The floors in the other section, just from water damage, are severely impacted as well.”
The ancillary damage, at least on first glance, isn’t something that ought to derail Summers’ purchase of the mill or the restoration project. “It can be fixed. It just costs money. That’s why you buy the insurance. Their insurance was current, hopefully the insurance company is reasonable and we can get at least back to where we were.
“There was always going to be a ton of work. Now there’s just a little more. It’s a bump, but we’re just happy that it didn’t get into the big section. We’ll have to get all that debris off and then we’ll see what it looks like under that, but if we don’t see any more than what we’re seeing right now, then we’re still proceeding on.”
Police first on the scene
At a Monday afternoon news conference, Johnson City Police Chief Mark Sirois and Fire Chief Mark Scott recounted the events of Sunday night and early Monday morning.
Sirois said the investigation was ongoing as of Monday afternoon, thereby limiting the amount of information he could disclose publicly. He noted that police have responded, and taken appropriate action, to numerous trespassing calls at the mill property over the past several years.
In fact, Sunday morning around 4 a.m., officers were dispatched to the mill building and charged three people with criminal trespassing. That incident is not believed to have a connection to the fire, but Sirois went on to describe the 9:17 p.m. call as one that resulted in officers noticing a fire inside the building.
The “person of interest” as of Monday was inside the building when officers arrived in response to the 9:17 p.m. call.
“Soon after the officers’ arrival, the fire department responded to a working fire in that location,” Sirois said.
The person officers confronted in the building – Sirois declined to say whether it was a man or woman – experienced “medical issues” after being brought to police head quarters, and was taken to Johnson City Medical Center.
“It has not been determined at this time whether there is a connection between this individual and the fire, but the fire marshal’s office is continuing its investigation supported by the Johnson City Police Department.”
Sirois said the fire marshal’s staff began investigating in the immediate aftermath of the fire, with help from the police.
Battling the blaze
The call to the fire department came at 9:26, Chief Scott said, and as they left the building, the nearest crew from Engine Three “could see the glow in the sky.”
In total, four engine companies and two ladder trucks spent hours battling the fire as onlookers gathered and flames shot from the top of the mill’s east side. Crews stayed out of the building after a risk assessment, Scott said.
“Old mill structures are notorious for having holes in the floor where conveyor belts and chutes go through. The building had a tremendous amount of smoke in it and also fire exiting the roof.”
The “external attack” was aided by amped up water pressure provided through the city’s water department in an arrangement Scott said allows auxiliary pumps to rely on an instant increase in water pressure when such situations arise. Crews hit the conflagration with about 4,000 gallons of water per minute for an extended period, finally quelling the flames.
“That says a lot and really a testimony to our firefighters, their level of training and the equipment that we’ve been blessed to have. We have some state-of-the-art ladder trucks and we also have the knowledge to use those. We have the ability to move large quantities of water very quickly and that all come into play last night.”
For a comprehensive update on Summers’s plans for the mill and how they may be funded, see our breaking story from last Wednesday at jcnewsandneighbor.com/modelmill092116.