Arson suspected in second old Hope gym fire

HOPE – Arson is suspected in the second fire inside the Old Hope gymnasium in fewer than three weeks.

Firefighters were sent at 5:13 p.m. Tuesday to the 84-year-old abandoned gym, 543 Washington St., on the west side of the Community Center of Hope’s parking lot.

Based on where the fire began, as well as eyewitness testimony, Hope Fire Chief Chad Emmitt says evidence “has me leaning toward arson.” However, it has not been officially declared that Tuesday’s fire was deliberately set, and the matter remains under investigation, the fire chief said.

On April 27, firefighters from Hope, Columbus, Flatrock, Clifford and Hartsville were called to the same building a few blocks north of the Hope Town Square. They spent several hours trying to bring the flames under control in the old gym, which has been closed for 12 to 13 years without being used.

The near collapse of the roof, as well as substantial water damage, made it nearly impossible for investigators to make a final determination regarding the cause of the first fire, Emmitt said.

“I don’t think we have been able to come with a true determination,” the fire chief said. “At least not yet. We’re still waiting to examine other elements.”

Tuesday’s fire appears to have originated inside a metal two-door cabinet that contained mostly bingo cards and a few other supplies, Emmitt said. The cabinet was kept at ground level on the north side of the building, he said.

“Fortunately, the only damage was to the contents of the metal cabinet, as well as heat damage to the drywall behind it,” the fire chief said. “Structurally, the rest of the room was all brick, so it didn’t damage anything.”

Firefighters had to break the glass on the gym’s southern door facing Mill Street in order to get their hoses and other firefighting apparatus to the gym’s north side, which is where the burning cabinet was located, Emmitt said.

An effort was made to reach the fire on the building’s north side, but all doors facing Washington Street were boarded up and secured after the April 27th fire, he said.

Town officials are still waiting for an official determination of arson before they can call in law enforcement, Emmitt said.

Originally with a seating capacity of 1,200, the old Hope gym was constructed in 1938 as a project of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration (WPA).

The gym made possible the addition of physical education classes and became the permanent home for the high school basketball team, which had earlier been playing in the Petersville and Taylorsville gyms.

The facility also had a stage for drama productions, as well as other school and community events.