No foul play in flea market fire

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May 9, 2007

AUGUSTA, Ga.---After three days of investigating, officials say no foul play was involved in the devastating fire that destroyed the 700 foot main building of the South Augusta Flea Market.

We spent the day at the site and found that not only was it difficult to walk through the debris, but also to even tell what you're looking at. But investigators tell us that is their job, and they say even the smallest detail can tell them exactly what happened.

Lt. Neal Brown told News 12 they're leaving no stone--or ash--unturned.

"The magnitude of this place here, being so big--it's 72,000 square feet--you can imagine, with everything totally consumed, and all laying on the floor, what it takes to move this stuff," he said. "The heavy equipment, if you need to move it, clear that floor so you can start working."

He says the area has to be clear before they start their investigation so they can follow the fire's path.

They start looking in the areas with the least amount of damage, and they follow the trail to the areas with the most.

Natural fires want open air, which means they go to the center of the room and to open doors and windows. Lt. Brown says these patterns, plus testimony from vendors, led them to one particular spot.

"If there's an area that we suspect, we will clear that area very well, and look at things, move things around--photograph them, then move them--and maybe even collect them as evidence," he said.

So far, the evidence tells him it could have started in the back and spread forward, with a little help from a propane tank along the way. But there are still a lot more questions.

"It can take a long time, and may never be solved," he said.

At this point investigators say they are moving the investigation off-site, trying to track down all the vendors and ask them some questions. They say they don't suspect any foul play, but the investigation is still open.

ATF is called in whenever there is an investigation of this size. The fire department says it's been a very thorough investigation.

They say there were some code violations at this building, and there may have been more injuries if the flea market was open on Monday.

The flea market owners were given a citation for some of those violations.

Today, the fire department tells News 12 there were no smoke detectors, there weren't enough exits, and the exits were not fire-resistant. But owner "Dusty" Rhodes and his son Glen say the problem is lack of nearby fire hydrants.

"It's a quarter of a mile away," said Glen Rhodes. "You go down to the sales tax office and see how much money has been collected in this business, how much property tax has been paid...and you tell me they can't get a fire hydrant for all these vendors?"

"It's to be determined whether the deficiencies caused the fire," he continued. "One of them was exits, and that can't cause it. The other one was sprinkler. And we didn't have them because there's no water here."

The fire department says the owner submitted new plans last week, and he's scheduled for court tomorrow.

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