Chief: Downtown blaze intentional

Following a few days of investigation by the state fire marshal’s office, it has been determined Friday’s fire that covered an entire city block in historic downtown North Vernon was set.

The blaze originated in a basement apartment in one of the two buildings that collapsed, North Vernon Fire Chief Rick McGill said Tuesday afternoon.

“The investigation has pretty well concluded there that it was a set fire because we are finding multiple points of origin within the room there,” McGill said.

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The apartment where the fire started is still pretty intact, he said.

Investigators continue to dig through that area to try and

determine the cause, and they also are interviewing firefighters who first arrived on scene.

“We will still continue to talk with individuals who might have pertinent information,” McGill said. “We are taking any of those portions of information as something to follow up on. We will follow up between our department, the state fire marshal’s office and North Vernon Police Department.”

McGill and an investigator with the state fire marshal’s office were back on the scene Tuesday looking for a surveillance camera that reportedly was mounted on the outside of one of the collapsed buildings.

The damage cost estimate has not been determined. Insurance company representatives were still on the scene Tuesday.

“You’ve got multiple owners

of buildings, so you’ve got multiple insurance representatives there,” McGill said. “Some of them haven’t been able to

completely accomplish their assessment of just how much damage there is in the building there that they happen to insure.”

The damaged structures also can’t be demolished until insurance companies are done with those assessments.

“Once the investigatory field work is accomplished, basically it will be up to the insurance companies to begin to assess what they want or feel needs to be done as far as site remediation goes,” McGill said.

Along with the two collapsed buildings, five others suffered some sort of damage.

That area was undergoing major façade work as part of a project awarded to North Vernon through the Indiana Stellar Communities Program three years ago. Work was about to begin on the streetscape, Mayor Harold “Soup” Campbell said Friday.

Work is now halted on that project at least until the spring. The buildings affected by the fire are more than 100 years old.

On Saturday, Harmon Construction of North Vernon put up 8-foot walls around the damaged area of the downtown, mainly to keep people safe and out of the area,

McGill said.

Friday’s fire started at 4:48 a.m., and McGill said firefighters were on the scene for more than 24 hours. He added firefighters went back down to the area a couple of times to wet down small hot spots within the collapsed zone.

McGill said six firefighters from various departments were taken to St. Vincent Jennings Hospital for minor injuries while battling Friday’s fire. Four were transported after one of the buildings collapsed, and two others suffered exhaustion or had respiratory difficulties.

It was first reported that there were only five firefighters hurt.

“Everyone was treated and released, and a couple of those firefighters even came back to the scene ready to go on ahead and go back to work again,” he said. “It’s kind of hard to keep good people down.”

Investigatory work was performed Monday and Tuesday. McGill later learned an investigator with the state fire marshal’s office was on the scene Friday taking pictures of the area while firefighters worked on extinguishing the blaze.

McGill said 13 fire departments from several area counties were on the scene Friday, and there also were several other emergency personnel assisting.

“As a fire chief, I greatly appreciate all of that support and that assistance that we got from everyone,” he said.

McGill has been with the department for 38 years, including serving as full-time chief for the past 13 years. During that time, he said there have been a few big fires, but none compared to the one Friday.

“This is definitely a very catastrophic event just for our whole town, our downtown, our business community as well as the residents,” he said.