When fire alarms at cotton processing plant in Kinston sounded Wednesday before dawn, firefighters across the city first thought it was nothing more than another stray fiber that had caught in the handling system.
After all, city firefighters had already battled two blazes this year at Kinston Fibers.
Instead, they ended up fighting what could be the worst industrial fire Kinston has seen since the West Pharmaceutical plant exploded and burned in 2003.
In their last visit, after a fire in May, officials with the city’s code enforcement division “diligently” worked with managers on strategies to prevent loose fibers from igniting, said Don Crawford, assistant chief for the department of public safety’s fire and rescue division.
“We’ve had good success with property owners here to eliminate hazards that we have found in the past,” Crawford said.
Inspectors identified a number of minor violations to city code that they suggested Kinston Fibers officials remedy in its plant. None of them was seen as a fire hazard, Crawford said.
Crawford and Lenoir County Fire Marshal Deral Raynor have yet to determine the cause of the fire or say whether Kinston Fiber made the recommended improvements. Officials with the company were not available for comment.
The two previous fires before Wednesday’s happened three months apart at around the same time — minutes before 8:30 p.m.
No injuries resulted from either blaze, but the company sustained about $20,000 in damages from each fire to both its 110,000-square-foot building and a series of conveyor belts that transfers deseeded cotton from a hopper to a baler.
However, the third fire in eight months has neighbors talking.
Heather Antwine, who lives across the street with her 75-year-old grandmother, called attention to what she saw as a lack of maintenance to the building’s exterior, especially gutters filled to the brim with debris.
“It is not a real threat, but if they don’t take the necessary precautions it could become more and more of a problem,” Antwine said.
Robert Robinson, who has worked 25 years down the street from Kinston Fibers at Simmons Welding, was more sanguine.
“These things happen,” he said. “Handling cotton is a risky business.”