ALTON — Hope Valley-Wyoming Fire Chief Fred Stanley is recovering from injuries he received when he responded to an alarm at the vacant Charbert Dye Mill at 299 Church St.
When Stanley and other responders arrived at the mill on July 7 just after 2 a.m., he said he noticed evidence of vandalism in a men’s room and called the Richmond police. After finding more damage in two other rooms, he then entered a third room and suddenly fell through the floor.
“Upon entering this room the floor began to move like I was walking on water and with no warning the floor gave way and I fell some 8 to 10 feet into a room below the floor leaving a hole about 4 feet by 6 feet,” Stanley said in a written statement. “I landed face down in mold and rotten wood not knowing if I blacked out, but when landing I lost my portable radio and hand light and was in total darkness.”
Stanley found his cellphone and called the fire department’s dispatch. It took firefighters 45 minutes to find him and place a ladder in the hole so he could climb out.
Stanley, who is 79, said he injured his lower back and is experiencing breathing problems.
“Breathing problems, probably from all the mold that was down in there,” he said. “They just did an MRI and they’re trying to get the swelling down on my back.”
The mill, located on 127 acres in Alton, is owned by the Narrow Fabrics of America Corporation of Chestnut Hill, Mass. Built in the 1960s, the facility produced knitted fabrics, dyes and stretch fabrics, and employed 107 people until it closed in 2008.
Stanley said no one in his department had ever been warned that the floors in the building might be unsafe, so in an effort to determine the overall state of the structure, he invited state and local fire and building officials to meet at the mill on Friday to tour the facility and assess possible hazards.
“I had to get the town building inspector to apply to go in and do a survey, so it took all this time to get in there,” he said. “The police and everybody’s got to know what the hazards are in there, because that floor didn’t rot out overnight. Once you see it, you realize it’s a scary situation.”
Lorne Gengarella, the Richmond building official, and several state officials were present. They included James Gumbley, the deputy state fire marshal; John Leo, waste engineer with the state Department of Environmental Management; and James Larisa from the state Department of Labor and Training.
They were joined by Richmond Emergency Management Director Joe Arsenault, Town Administrator Robert Rock, Carolina Fire Chief Scott Barber and other officials from the town.
Not everyone was allowed to enter the mill. When Leslie Taito, Narrow Fabrics’ senior vice president for business development, arrived, she quickly restricted the tour to a handful of state and emergency officials.
“We have, obviously, an open issue here that we are looking to resolve, so we’re not prepared to make any comment at this time,” she said.
Taito expressed irritation that so many people had come to the mill. “I was unaware that everyone would be here today. We were notified that two people would be here today,” she said.
Stanley replied that he wanted to spread the word about vandalism on the property.
“Our intent is to get the information out that there is a vandalism problem before some of those kids get hurt,” he said.
“Understandably, sir,” Taito said. “But from the corporation’s side, I obviously have to make sure that we’re going to do the investigation in a very systematic, methodical way.”
Taito then asked those excluded from the tour to leave the property altogether.
“If you are not going in the facility and you are not part of the fire team, I do ask if you could go off-site…It is private property,” she said.
Taito admonished Stanley for releasing his written report on the July 7 incident, but Stanley stood his ground.
“You aren’t in my position, I guess, are you?” he said. “Look at the situation. We’ve got to clear it up before somebody gets hurt. Thirty-one calls we’ve had in here in 10 years, and never once were we notified of any defects in the floor,” he said.
When he emerged from the building after the tour, Stanley said it appeared the company intended to make the necessary repairs.
“At least now they’re going to give a full report to us, what they plan on doing, how they’re going to clean it up and correct it,” he said. “I was hoping to do it earlier, but we had to go through the channels to do it. My concern, and I think Chief Johnson and all of us, is these people vandalizing, getting in the building.” Elwood Johnson is the Richmond police chief.
According to two of the mill’s neighbors, the vandalism problem has gotten worse.
Carly Castagnaro and her son, Jacob, 12, who live across the street, said there had activity in the building at night.
“Some of the kids at the bus stop have been inside of there and they’ve told me that they’ve broken the windows and took the fire extinguishers and they used them and they just break in there for fun. The fire extinguishers that are there for emergencies, there’s a room full of them and they take them and they bring them all the way back there,” Jacob said, pointing at the woods beyond the mill.
“The police came and questioned him and said to ask his parents, which is me, if we see any suspicious activity to let them know,” Carly said. “Ever since then, there’s been detective cars parked in the parking lot.”
Carly also noted that new ‘“No trespassing” signs had been posted on the fence in front of the building and at the parking lot across the street.
Before it closed, the Charbert mill was the source of complaints by neighbors and investigations by the DEM.
In 2004, the department issued a Notice of Violation against the company for air and water quality violations at the mill. It also fined Charbert $9,500.
The DEM and Charbert reached an agreement to resolve the matter, but in 2005, the Town of Richmond, saying it should have been involved in the settlement, went to court and succeeded in persuading a judge to overturn it. In the end, however, the agreement was upheld by the state Supreme Court.
According to a document issued by the environmental department, the agreement included requirements that Charbert stop altering wetlands, end its use of a wastewater lagoon, reduce wastewater discharges to its sewage disposal system, have that system inspected and repaired if necessary, and provide an alternate source of drinking water to one nearby homeowner whose well had been contaminated. The company was also ordered to prevent the rotten egg odors that residents living near the mill complained about.
Charbert has paid the $9,500 fine to the DEM.