Massive fire in old Barwick Mills plant in downtown LaFayette creates explosions, smoke seen for miles

LAFAYETTE, Ga. - An explosive fire that tore through the old Barwick Mills plant in downtown LaFayette on Saturday was likely to keep firefighters busy into today, authorities said.

Nobody was inside the building and no firefighters had been injured as of Saturday night. Authorities won't know what started the fire until the remains of the structure cool down and they can investigate.

The first 911 calls came in around 2 p.m. when neighbors noticed flames at the southern tip of the building. A police officer also saw smoke, said LaFayette City Manager David Hamilton, and called the fire department.

Soon, thick, black smoke could be seen from more than a dozen miles away and neighbors were crowding the scene to watch as roiling walls of flame consumed the building.

The old plant ceased operation in the early to mid 1990s, Hamilton said. It used to make textiles. The southern half of the old plant was being leased out, and a fire wall separated the southern and northern halves. As of Saturday evening, the fire had been confined to the southern half.

Witnesses said when the fire started they heard several "popping" sounds and saw flames shooting up.

"It near scared me to death," said Patricia Byrd, who lives next to the building. "I was scared something was going to explode."

Authorities aren't sure what was in the building, making putting it out difficult. Saturday evening firefighters were letting the fire burn out, and Hamilton said crews would soon begin knocking down the building's walls so they wouldn't collapse on either the firefighters or the adjacent train tracks.

A passenger train is scheduled to roll through the area today.

"I would say at least through the night and probably tomorrow," Hamilton said of how long firefighters will be on the scene. "Maybe 24 hours."

In addition to tending the fire, authorities brought in a backhoe to try and create a dam. It isn't known what old chemicals are in the building, and officials didn't want the water from fire hoses to carry pollutants into a nearby creek.

However, around 5 p.m., the nearby creek water was unnaturally bright blue.

At one point, a giant fireball shot up into the sky from the middle of the building. The fireball gave off heat from even 200 yards away and lit up the area for a few seconds in an orange glow.

Clint Phillips lives nearby and heard three or four explosions throughout the duration of the fire. He was watching when what he said was a propane tank exploded and blew up a brick wall.

"You can see all the brick and the metal shrapnel," he said, pointing at what used to be a wall.

Contact staff writer Evan Hoopfer at ehoopfer or @EvanHoopfer on Twitter or 423-757-6731.