The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

February 28, 2013

Fire expected to smolder for days

‘Our No. 1 focus is the victims,’ Hinton mayor says

By Sarah Plummer
Register-Herald Reporter

HINTON — Fires are expected to smolder in downtown Hinton for as long as a week after one two-story home and five apartment buildings known as “the brick row” on Temple Street were set afire in an act of suspected arson early Tuesday morning.

Hinton Fire Chief Ray Pivont said crews were called out to a structure fire at 1:30 a.m. Tuesday on Fifth Street. After 30 minutes they were then called out to a second fire on Temple Street. After working through the night with the help of seven other county fire departments, the Hinton firefighters took a break at 1:30 p.m. but returned to douse the structure with several thousand more gallons of water around 4:30 p.m., he said.

Pivont said the four-story brick structures collapsed into their basements and tons of rubble prevents the firefighters from completely dousing the flames. He said the smolders would have to burn out on their own.

Billy Joe Gill, 25, of Hinton, was arrested within an hour after the fires were reported and is charged with first-degree arson.

According to the criminal complaint filed against the suspect, Gill knocked on the door of the Fifth Street home Monday night before the fire began and asked to be let in.

The homeowner said she denied his entrance and was soon awakened by the fire.

Also, according to the complaint, when police located Gill a short time later he was wearing rubber gloves and smelled of Kerosene.

Gill is being held in Southern Regional Jail on $200,000 bond.

Hinton Mayor Joe Blankenship said the town’s primary concern remains caring for the fire victims, which he estimates at around 30.

“Our No. 1 focus is the victims, to find them shelter, food and clothing. In addition to that, I am so pleased and proud of how our community has come together. We always find a way to rally behind one another,” he said.

Not only has the community stepped up to help the fire victims, Blankenship partly credits the community for Gill’s prompt arrest.

“I’m pleased our police department had the suspect arrested in an hour, but they had help and clues through our community. It helps when people are aware, observant and looking out for each other. It deters future criminal acts,” he said.

Blankenship said the American Red Cross met with as many displaced citizens as they could locate Tuesday and offered to put those who did not have family or relatives to stay with in a hotel.

Likewise, Loaves and Fishes Thrift Store has offered clothing to those displaced.

Others hoping to donate to fire victims can send monetary gifts online to www.hintonareafoundation.com (please designate donations for fire victims). Donations are also being accepted at First Community Bank on Stokes Drive in Hinton and J.L. Massie Insurance on Temple Street in Hinton.

Additionally, food donations will be accepted at the REACHH Family Resource Center and all personal items like clothes and toiletries are being collected at Hinton City Hall.

Donations of household items will be accepted once a drop-off location and distribution system has been established.

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Tuesday’s fires represent significant losses for a city working to restore its historical structures.

Jack Smith, who has owned one of “the brick row” structures since 1997, said his first concern when he heard about the fire was for his tenant.

“I got a phone call (Tuesday) morning at 6 a.m. and my first concern was for my elderly renter and to make sure she was OK,” he said.

Smith says he plans to get an estimate on cleaning the debris from his unit but does not expect to rebuild on the same location. Each structure was 20 feet wide, 125 feet deep and four stories high, making the lot an awkward size for rebuilding.

Smith said the structures were built in 1905 to house railroad officials and his had oak trim and four fireplaces.

According to Wayne Harvey, president of the Summers County Historical Society, the two-story structure that burned first on Fifth Street was within the boundaries of Hinton’s National Historic District.

Specifics on the two-story structure are not available; however, most structures in the district were built between 1905 and 1930.

— E-mail: splummer@register-herald.com