Book warehouse burns

August 13, 2003|by BRIAN SHAPPELL

Fire swept through a book warehouse in Blue Ridge Summit Tuesday night, sending thick smoke through the building and drawing firefighters from 33 departments and four counties.

The blaze swept through about one-fourth of the 100,000-square-foot Building E at the National Book Network at the University Press of America complex on NBN Way, firefighters said.

Emergency units were called to the fire at 8:37 p.m., according to Blue Ridge Fire and Rescue Chief John Fleagle. When firefighters arrived, thick smoke had filled the warehouse and was billowing out of the vents, Fleagle said.


"Because of the smoke inside, we couldn't see where we were going," Fleagle said during a 10:30 p.m. press conference.

Fleagle said initially there was concern for the safety of night-shift employees because at least one worker was not accounted for. The missing employee was later located.

By 10:30 p.m., the fire was under control, but was far from being "knocked down," Fleagle said.

He said the cause of the fire had not been determined and damage estimates were not available because crews were still trying to extinguish the blaze.

"We still haven't hit all of the hotspots yet," Fleagle said. "We're going to be here for an extended period of time, I'd say (until) the early morning hours."

Aside from the smoke, a second major concern was that books stacked inside the warehouse were falling on top of firefighters, Fleagle said.

He said he had not seen a fire "of this magnitude" in his seven years with the department.

None of the employees or firefighters were severely injured as a result of the blaze, according to Fleagle and Steve Mitchell, vice president of systems for Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group and the National Book Network.

Mitchell said he received news of the blaze at his home minutes after it erupted.

"I got the call and came running," he said. "When I got the call, there was one person unaccounted for."

Building E of the complex held millions of dollars in softcover, hardcover and text books, Mitchell said. The company handles sales, marketing and distribution tasks for about 700 publishers, he said.

About 400 employees work at the University Press of America complex, 50 of whom usually work the night shift, according to Mitchell.

Dozens of shaken employees waited outside the building, including some who were inside when the fire began. They would not comment.

Many of the people who were close to where the fire erupted left the area after giving statements to fire officials, Mitchell said.

"We tried to send everyone home and out of the way of the firefighters," he said.

University Press of America bought the Blue Ridge Summit facilities from McGraw-Hill in February 1997.

Mike Ross, president of the Franklin County Area Development Corp., said when McGraw-Hill left the site many people were out of jobs, but when another publishing company moved into the facility, many of the McGraw-Hill workers found employment there.

"They're one of the largest employers in Franklin County and it's important what they've done," he said. "They've taken a property that really had a special purpose use and came in and have really maximized the potential of the property."

He said the facility draws employees from Washington and Frederick counties in Maryland and from Adams and Franklin counties in Pennsylvania.

Mitchell said he and colleagues did not yet know the extent of the financial loss caused by fire, smoke and water damage to the warehouse and the books inside.

"I have no idea the amount of damage there is - there's no way of speculating it," Mitchell said. "We'll worry about the fallout later."

Staff writer Pepper Ballard contributed to this story.

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