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Images show Richmond recycling facility before the blaze, efforts to clean-up

The city released images from 2019 showing piles of recyclables that leaders feared could – and ultimately did – fuel a massive fire.

RICHMOND, Ind. — The City of Richmond released images from 2019 showing piles of recyclables that leaders feared could, and ultimately did, fuel a massive fire.

13 Investigates reviewed aerial images that show conditions on the property improved over the years, but not enough to prevent a weeklong inferno that led to thousands of evacuations.

On Tuesday, Fire Chief Tim Brown declared the fire was out. Firefighters continue to monitor the area for hot spots, but residents are starting to move back home after being evacuated for days. Children also returned to school full-time this week.

Thousands of people were impacted by the blaze. Almost immediately, city leaders blamed the owner of the former My-Way Trading company for the disaster. The business now goes by the name Cornerstone Trading Group and is owned by Seth Smith.

Officials warned the warehouse buildings on Northwest F Street were a fire hazard years earlier.

During a September 2019 hearing, Deputy Fire Chief Douglas Gardner told the Richmond Unsafe Building Commission utilities were not connected.

"We have no electric for emergency lighting,” Gardner said. We have no electric for smoke detection. We have no electric for water for fire protection systems."

The commission also received images of the materials which were inside and outside of dilapidated buildings, which had caved in roofs, crumbling exteriors and broken fire suppression equipment.

At the time, the city worried if the materials caught fire flames would get out of control. The fire department created an incident pre-plan. It also asked a federal agency to complete an air plume study showing where smoke could go.

"So when we look at this, we look at possible evacuation areas,” Gardner said in 2019. “And we've done this for four wind directions."

During that same hearing Smith told the commission materials accumulated inside and outside of buildings after he fell seriously ill in 2015. Smith says a bankruptcy filing also contributed to the state of the plots of land on Northwest F Street.

"I've always been a good neighbor,” Smith said. “But during that period of time, I will admit openly, got out of control. I have a plan now; I've been working on that plan."

Part of that plan included selling and shipping the stacks of materials abroad.

"There’s a lot of work to be done there,” Smith said in 2019. “It's not going to happen, you know, in a short period of time. This is a long process. But I am dedicated to the process.”

Ultimately, the Richmond Unsafe Building Commission issued an Order to Repair, Demolish or Vacate, which a judge approved in 2020.

13 Investigates reviewed aerial images from 2019, 2021 and 2023. The most recent images showed it was improving.

However, the property was never vacated and remediated, and the evacuation concern became a reality more than three years later. The costly inferno is still being investigated. On Wednesday, the fire chief said he did not know what started the blaze.

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