Massive damage at the Carpet Mania building may mean investigators will never know the exact cause of a fire that caused an estimated $2 million in structural and content damage to a store and adjacent businesses on the near north side of Columbus.

“There’s a 50-50 chance that the fire will remain listed as undetermined,” Columbus Fire Department spokesman Capt. Mike Wilson said Thursday as fire investigators began sifting through the rubble.

Columbus firefighters continued to pour water on the fire Thursday morning as a backhoe moved debris at the site, which gave inspectors a chance to examine potential evidence in their efforts to determine a cause, Wilson said.

The fire was initially reported at 12:25 p.m. Wednesday at 10th Street and Michigan Avenue, and became a four-alarm blaze through Wednesday night.

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Carpet Mania and fitness center Deathproof CrossFit — formerly known as CrossFit Retaliation — were destroyed, Wilson said.

While a firewall prevented flames from reaching a third business, expensive equipment inside Advantage One Imaging Center, Inc. suffered substantial water damage, Wilson said.

Some smoldering areas of the building still existed as of 3 p.m. Thursday, Wilson said.

Preliminary structural damage estimates for all three combined are just above $1 million, while damage to contents and equipment could add another $1 million to the financial loss of the three businesses, Wilson said.

Fire investigator Matt Noblitt said witness statements are providing some clues that may help him determine a cause and point of origin.

Several employees at Advantage One and the fitness center said the building’s lights were flickering just before they smelled smoke.

“What’s really helping us out here is that we’ve got some eyewitnesses early on,” Noblitt said.

A number of witnesses reported seeing an outside electrical arc on the north side of Carpet Mania before they noticed the fire, Wilson said.

However, it has yet to be determined whether the arc sparked the fire — or the other way around, Noblitt said.

Carpet Mania owner Clinton Mann was interviewed Thursday by firefighters, who delayed talking with him Wednesday after seeing him distraught at the fire scene.

“We know from several others that he had so much of his life tied up in developing this property,” Wilson said. “We wanted to show some compassion.”

When interviewed, Mann said Carpet Mania had residential-style alarms in the office area. As the fire intensified, witnesses said they heard the alarms sounding, Wilson said.

Mann also said he had insurance on the building, according to Wilson.

Investigators were not able to determine Thursday whether Deathproof CrossFit had smoke alarms, however.

None of the six business suites in the U-shaped building had sprinkler systems, Wilson said.

While the 81-year-old building that housed Carpet Mania probably wouldn’t require a sprinkler system, investigators are trying to determine whether they should have been installed in the more modern suites, Wilson said.

“Factors that influence sprinkler system requirements typically depend on what type of building it is, as well as how many occupants it has,” Wilson said.

Noblitt confirmed that the acrid smoke that billowed out of the fire Wednesday from burning nylon and vinyl would be dangerous if inhaled. However, most of the smoke went skyward rather than lingering at ground level and did not pose a public health danger, Wilson said.

“We were thankful the heat from the fire and the wind conditions carried it up into the atmosphere,” he said.

Building history

The building that housed Carpet Mania played an important part in the city’s history.

It was constructed in 1937 as a location of Lewellen Manufacturing Co., founded in 1919 by entrepreneur Darcy E. Lewellen.

He was the father of Jeanne Lewellen Norbeck, whose memory is still honored by local veteran groups after she was killed while test-piloting an aircraft during World War II.

Lewellen Manufacturing Co., which manufactured speed pulleys, speed transmissions and controls, was employing more than 50 people by 1976. However, the number of workers had dwindled to 28 people when the company ceased operations at the end of 1985.

Since the building was located next to Golden Castings, a foundry with a reputation for spreading both dirty particles and undesirable smells in the neighborhood, the site was not considered a prime location for most investors.

Local property records from just prior to its 1999 sale to Clinton and Kathryn Mann listed the value of the land and building at $47,000.

But after the first building, where the fitness center was located, was constructed on the site in 2002, those values increased to $212,000, records state.

One year later, the nearby foundry closed and efforts were initiated to clean up the site.

Two additional business offices with eight suites on the north side of the lot were constructed in 2007, along with extensive infrastructure upgrades.

On March 15, 2017, the buildings and land had a total valuation of $584,300, records state.

Two attractive affordable multi-housing complexes — the Gateway Apartments and Ashford Park Apartments — have gone up on the former foundry site in recent years.

Manpower overview

The manpower required to control Wednesday’s blaze near 10th and Michigan streets was more than any fire that has taken place in Bartholomew County since the Christmas Eve  2009 fire at the United Way building, Columbus Fire investigator Matt Noblitt said.

Here’s a rundown on the manpower and equipment.

  • A total of 56 city and three Columbus Township firefighters
  • Six fire engines
  • Two aerial ladders provided by both the city and Columbus Township.
  • One rescue squad.

Thirty of those who were battling the blaze were off-duty city firefighters called in to assist, Columbus Fire Department spokesman Capt. Mike Wilson said.

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Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.