Arson suspected in blaze at old cereal factory; firefighters across region respond to multi-building fire

  • Firefighters from across the region responded to a blaze at the former cereal factory at 16-36 West River St. in Orange that started Saturday morning. Staff Photo/Bella Levavi

  • Firefighters from across the region responded to a blaze at the former cereal factory at 16-36 West River St. in Orange that started Saturday morning. Staff Photo/Bella Levavi

  • Firefighters from across the region responded to a blaze at the former cereal factory at 16-36 West River St. in Orange that started Saturday morning. Staff Photo/Bella Levavi

  • Firefighters from across the region responded to a blaze at the former cereal factory at 16-36 West River St. in Orange that started Saturday morning. Staff Photo/Bella Levavi

  • Firefighters from across the region responded to a blaze at the former cereal factory at 16-36 West River St. in Orange that started Saturday morning. Staff Photo/Bella Levavi

  • Cleanup in progress at 16 West River Street on Sunday, the day after a fire destroyed the former cereal factory. STAFF PHOTO/JULIAN MENDOZA

  • Cleanup in progress at 16 West River Street on Sunday, the day after a fire destroyed the former cereal factory. STAFF PHOTO/JULIAN MENDOZA

  • Cleanup in progress at 16 West River Street on Sunday, the day after a fire destroyed the former cereal factory. STAFF PHOTO/JULIAN MENDOZA

  • Orange firefighters push in windows to protect pedestrians against potential falling glass. STAFF PHOTO/JULIAN MENDOZA

  • Cleanup in progress at 16 West River Street on Sunday, the day after a fire destroyed the former cereal factory. STAFF PHOTO/JULIAN MENDOZA

  • Cleanup in progress at 16 West River Street on Sunday, the day after a fire destroyed the former cereal factory. STAFF PHOTO/JULIAN MENDOZA

  • Rubble from the former blacksmith shop on East River Street in Orange following the fire that started at the former cereal factory. STAFF PHOTO/JULIAN MENDOZA

Published: 6/5/2022 4:36:08 PM
Modified: 6/5/2022 4:33:58 PM

ORANGE — Orange Police and Fire Departments have “a very strong suspicion that it was arson” that caused a multi-building fire that collapsed the former cereal factory at 16 West River Street Saturday, according to Police Chief James Sullivan.

According to a press release from the Fire Department, the fire was first reported at 11:45 a.m. Upon arrival, firefighters found heavy smoke and flames at the vacant mill building and four others in the area. Orange Police Chief James Sullivan said that aside from the collapsed cereal factory, vacant buildings at 58 and 50 South Main St. also sustained damage. Across the street, the vacant former blacksmith shop near 24 East River St. was entirely lost to fire and had to be knocked down.

“I watched as the wall of the building fell down, and then all you could see were flames,” said Penny Allen, an Orange resident who lives less than a block away.

“Crews worked through the day and night to contain the fire, extinguish it, and chase hot spots,” the release reads.

The response from regional Fire Departments was equivalent to a six- or seven-alarm fire, according to Orange Fire Chief James Young. “Dozens of departments assisted at the scene or provided station coverage,” according to the release. The state’s Fire Mobilization Plan was also activated, bringing in task forces from across the state for support. In addition to regional resources, the Massachusetts Department of Fire Services deployed two Rehab units, an Incident Support Unit to assist commanders, a Drone Unit to obtain aerial imagery of the structures and a Hazmat team to monitor air quality. The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency and Department of Environmental Protection also responded.

Gardner Fire Chief Gregory Lagoy spoke to the number of fire departments called in, everywhere from Ashburnham to Amherst. Additionally, the owners of neighboring properties attempted to stop other fires that ignited as a result of the falling debris.

Logan Rivers, owner of 24 East River St., said he noticed his neighbor’s building on fire. Rivers and his friend used garden hoses and a fire extinguisher to attempt to put it out before the firefighters arrived and took over.

Orange Trading Co. owner Gary Moise said he was in Greenfield when he heard about the fire.

“I told my friend to climb on the roof of the building and use the hose that was up there for gardening to put out the hot coals on the roof,” Moise said. “That’s why my building didn’t catch on fire.”

With the fire expanding east, Stephanie Chabot, who lives directly west of the fire, said, “we are fortunate it didn’t come this way.”

“It was so scary to watch,” Chabot said.

While he made clear the severity of the fire at the former cereal factory, Young said similar mill fires are not rare.

“We have a mill building fire like this every once in a while in the county,” he said.

Sullivan said suspicion of arson as probable cause for the fire is supported by what was found upon initial investigation.

“We have some evidence that we’re following up on that leads us to believe it was set,” he said of the fire.

Sullivan previously said the former cereal factory was built in 1890 and spans 59,394 square feet, or 19,798 square feet on each of its three floors. In late March, Orange Police Chief James Sullivan said the building was in imminent danger of failure, which prompted the town to close the portion of West River Street from South Main to Pleasant streets.

Sullivan explained Building Commissioner Jeffrey Cooke had an engineering firm examine the building, determining the structure’s instability. According to Sullivan, Cooke had called the firm after noticing considerable movement of the structure’s walls.

“When it fails, they’re anticipating it’s going to fall into West River Street,” Sullivan said at the time. “It would spill across the entire road.”

In response to theories circulating online that the town might have intentionally caused the fire to avoid paying demolition costs for the former cereal factory, Sullivan was in vehement denial.

“That is all utter and total nonsense,” he said of the speculation. “The town has nothing to do with this. … If we were able to take this down in a scheduled manner, it would cost us far less.”

Currently, the site is being cleaned up and debris is being tested for dangerous substances, such as asbestos, according to Sullivan.

“All this black stuff that came down, we don’t believe it has asbestos in it,” he added.

Still, Sullivan said those who cross the police line and set foot on the property will be arrested and charged with trespassing and other applicable charges. Security will be present 24 hours per day “until (emergency personnel) can make everything safe.”

“The message I need desperately right now is to have people stay away from the rubble,” he said, noting that people were spotted trespassing atop the rubble collecting bricks the night following the fire.

Sullivan thanked assisting emergency response departments from around the region, as well as Wal-Mart for providing emergency responders with water and Pizza Factory for “pumping food” to the site.

Those with information on the fire, its origin, or individuals involved are asked to call the Arson Watch Reward Program Hotline at 1-800-682-9229. The Arson Watch Reward Program is operated by the Massachusetts Property Insurance Underwriters Association and offers rewards of up to $5,000 for information that solves or detects arsons. All calls are confidential and tipsters may remain anonymous upon request.

Those with information may also contact Shelburne Control to speak with local investigators at 978-544-2128. The origin and cause of the fire are being investigated by the Orange Fire Department, Orange Police Department, the State Police Fire & Explosion Investigation Unit assigned to the State Fire Marshal’s office and the State Police Detective Unit assigned to the Northwestern District Attorney’s office.

Reach Bella Levavi at 413-930-4579 or blevavi@recorder.com. Reach Julian Mendoza at 413-772-0261, ext. 261 or jmendoza@recorder.com.


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