Investigators start work at scene of factory fire

Fire investigators on the scene of a vacant factory that nearly burned to the ground.
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Fire investigators are just getting started as they trying to determine how and exactly where and how a four-alarm fire started Sunday night.

The fire at a warehouse near State and Van Buren burned into Monday morning and lit up the sky on the city's southeast side. The eerie glow could be seen for miles.

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The investigation will be difficult and dangerous. Arson detectives aren't going inside the destroyed factory until air test results and city structural engineers give them the okay. The roof is caved in, walls have separated and daylight shines through some of the brick walls.

On Tuesday, assessment of the building at 1545 E Van Buren St. continued as the Department of Code Enforcement(DCE) moved forward with the evaluation of the structural integrity of the building. Engineers have determined that several of the walls will need to be secured or torn down before anyone can go inside.

IFD/IMPD fire investigators are on scene doing preliminary investigative work outside the structure. Certified Fire Investigators (CFI) from the Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) Regional Office are in town and working with local investigators on the initial examination of the fire scene from the outside.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is conducting sampling testing of debris that fell out of the building during the fire. They will also review any EPA information available prior to the fire with regard to air quality inside the building.

Indianapolis Fire Department Capt. Rita Burris looked it over on Monday.

"There's a definite possibility of possibility of collapse. It's better safe than sorry," she said.

The century-old building, nearly a block long, erupted in flames Sunday night. Neighbors were startled by how fast a little smoke turned into such a huge fire.

A woman standing on her front steps pointed and waved her arms.

"We started seeing the flames. It was crazy," she said, her voice full of excitement. "It went like, 'click click, click click'."

It took four alarms and more than six hours for firefighters to get the flames under control. Nearby residents were asked to leave for their own safety. One fireman, overcome by heat, was taken to the hospital, treated and released.

The Holcomb and Hoke Manufacturing Company flourished on the city's southeast side for more than 100 years. The company closed several years ago, during the recession. A company story online says the once sprawling site produced a variety of products, including popcorn popping machines, refrigeration equipment, military hardware, folding room dividers and more.

City records show years of overdue taxes totaling more than $160,000. For six years, inspectors have issued citations for weeds, trash, and unsecured buildings. Fire inspectors were here twice this year.

"Once in March and once in July," said Burris. "They made an attempt both times to inspect the building, but were unable to gain access to the building."

Last year, a tax sale didn't attract a single buyer. Unfortunately, the fire occurred just as city officials were ready to strike a deal with developers promising new life and a new use for the old, unused property. The plan was to turn the old factory into 70 units for senior citizens to live.

City officials planned to finalize the deal Thursday. Now, they don't know whether the developer will want to go ahead as planned or if they will have to find yet another new use for the old industrial site.