Firefighters and investigators waited hours Monday for the burned rubble of an old tobacco warehouse to cool before they could begin an in-depth look for the cause.
The massive fire that destroyed the 100,000 square-foot building — which was the last tobacco warehouse left in the city — started around 12:15 p.m. Sunday.
“We’re mopping up hotspots until it’s safe to do a walk through,” said Johnson City Assistant Fire Marshal Mike Hill.
Officials were not completely sure that no one was inside the building at the time of the fire, but could not conduct a search until the rubble cooled down.
The building was apparently a haven for some of the homeless in Johnson City.
Even a day later, onlookers drove by to get a glimpse of what was left of the large structure.
Hill said the building had a “heavy fire load,” which means there was a lot inside that fueled the flames.
The walls of the building were metal, but the framework apparently consisted of large wooden beams. Hill said the wood, and a tar roof kept the fire going several hours, but the light rain that began to fall about the same time as the fire was reported helped in the fight.
Hill said he could not confirm what contents, if any, were stored at the warehouse, but a fire official on Sunday said there were rolls of grass, seed and fertilizer used in landscaping along road projects inside.
Firefighters had the blaze under control by 3 p.m., but still had a lot of work to do to stamp out the remaining fire. As they worked to douse the flames and protect surrounding structures, locals flocked to the area to watch the scene.
Many people came after seeing the large plume of thick, black smoke rise over the city. There were reports the black column was seen from the Bristol Highway as well as Elizabethton.
One unidentified woman said she thought it was a tornado when she first saw it.
Many onlookers holed up at Krispy Kreme across the street while others parked and walked as close to the fire as police would allow.
Firefighters also evacuated AutoZone.
Photos and videos of the fire popped up quickly on social media websites as onlookers snapped shots with their cell phones.
Hill said a crew of firefighters remained on the scene overnight Sunday to ensure the rubble didn’t blaze up again.
The fire department could not confirm who owns the property, but according to the Washington County Assessor’s Office, it’s owned by 1017 West Market Partners.
According to the Tennessee Secretary of State, that partnership’s business license expired April 4. The mailing address associated with the license is that of Mitch Cox Realtor Inc.
A message left on Cox’s voice mail at his business was not returned.