Call 1 Dispatcher: 911. Caller: Yes, I'm at 1st Avenue. The Bibb City Mill is blowing up!
Call 2 Dispatcher: Columbus 911. Caller: Something in downtown is on fire. There's explosions. There's stuff blowing up. Dispatcher: There's stuff blowing up? Caller: There's stuff blowing up! It blew- it sounds like something is roaring.
Call 3 Dispatcher: Columbus 911. Caller: I think the RiverMill just blew up! Dispatcher: Yes, we have fire trucks on the way out there. Caller: There's pillars of smoke just rising in the sky!
COLUMBUS, GA (WTVM) - Midnight, October 30th, 2008 -- the Columbus 911 Center was flooded with frantic calls.
Immediately, fire trucks were sent to the old Bibb City Mill and to what quickly became the largest, most violent fire Columbus has ever seen.
"You could see it from the overpass down 2nd Avenue. So when we got to the scene, there was already the top floor, fire was already coming out of the windows, fire below it. A building of this size- you've got open channels a quarter of a mile long running from this end at the river all the way back to 1st Avenue right here," said Battalion Chief Terry Herring, who was in charge of the first crew on the scene. Herring functioned as one of the incident commanders during the fire.
In the end, the mill was its own worst enemy.
"The heavy timber that was in that building, the old linseed oil they used on those floors, that was just like fuel. It burned rapidly once fire got to it," explained Deputy Chief Greg Lang with Columbus Fire and EMS.
"The sprinkler mains ruptured and when they ruptured, there was nothing to keep the fire slowed down and it just spread through the mill from one end to the other," the mill's owner, Brent Buck said.
Firefighters fought flames for hours and kept them from spreading to adjacent buildings and the surrounding neighborhood.
"On a fire, when you know you can't go in and you might get somebody hurt, we'll go defensive and stay outside and that's what we did. We went defensive real early because we knew there was no chance of getting inside this thing- you don't need anybody in there. These walls are six stories high and we know they were going to fall so we made sure the trucks were out of the collapse zones," Herring said.
Our cameras were rolling as the mill literally crumbled. Crews stayed on the scene for more than week, putting out hot spots. When it was all over, the Columbus landmark was reduced to rubble.
The ATF assisted the Columbus Fire Department with the fire investigation. They ruled the cause undetermined.
Now, a year later, the big question remains unanswered.
"The investigation is still open. That investigation of the fire will remain open until we can determine with a great deal of confidence, exactly what happened at the mill," said Columbus Fire Chief Jeff Meyer.
Officials do know the fire started towards the back of the mill near the river. They're searching for a person of interest- a homeless man whose identity they're not releasing.
That's not surprising to Brent Buck. He says vagrants often set fires inside to stay warm.
"There's so many access points to this mill. It was almost an impossible task to keep them out. We feel like it was either a vagrant or some kids in the back of the mill that started it. I don't think they intentionally did it. I think they were trying to stay warm and it just got out of control," he said.
As for the future of the mill, Buck says he is working on a master plan. He's not sure what exactly will fill the void. He knows he wants some green space and to preserve as much of the historic building as possible.
"I'm glad that we were able to save the facade. We do plan on redoing that and at some juncture, creating a lookout looking over the original mill footprint. People can come and actually go up in and see the vastness of how big the mill was."
No matter what, no one will forget the events or images from that night.
The Bibb Mill Fire has changed the face of Columbus.
"You won't ever forget it. This something we probably won't see in this city again, this magnitude of a fire- I hope we don't. But it's just one you put in a special place because it meant a lot to a lot of people. My mom and dad worked in these mills and Bibb City- I was born and raised right down the road right here," Herring said.
"The people of this community- to watch their faces and see that part of their history and heritage literally go up in flames was sad. It was sad to lose that part of history in this area," Meyer added.
"It's just going to take time. It took a long time to build it and it's going to take a long time to clean it up and get it back to where we want it to be," Buck said.
The mill's owner expects clean up to take another six to eight months.
Columbus Fire officials say the Sate Fire Marshal's Office is offering up to a $10,000 reward to anyone with information leading to an arrest or conviction in connection with the fire.
You're encouraged to call Columbus Fire and EMS at 706-653-3520.