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Kent firefighters were inside burning mill during explosion


KENT, Ohio (WJW) — Crews remain on the scene of a massive fire that continues to smolder in Kent’s Historic Mill District.

Thick billowing black smoke and monstrous flames were reported just before 9 a.m. at the old Williams Brothers Flour Mill located at 162 N Water Street.

The raging fire was extremely difficult and dangerous to contain, says Kent Fire Chief Bill Myers.

Six aerial operations and firefighters from 37 departments worked to battle the blaze all day and night Friday.

A handful of firefighters had a very close call about three minutes after arriving. The chief says they were inside of the burning structure when something exploded, blasting a huge gaping hole into an outer brick wall.

“We initiated interior operations and that’s when the explosion happened. Thankfully none of our firefighters were injured. They were inside the building when it did explode so that’s very concerning to all of us,” said Chief Myers.

It’s not clear what caused the explosion, but because the structure was compromised, crews could not go back inside of the building. 

They had to work on extinguishing the fire entirely from the outside.

Also, railroad tracks that run alongside the mill were shut down so fire hoses could be stretched across them.

“It has been a challenge for us, yes,” said Chief Myers.

It’s unclear how the building was currently being used. The chief said no evacuations were issued, but they did experience water supply issues. 

According to the chief, fighting the fire was taxing the water supply, so they issued an alert for residents asking them to reduce consumption and water tankers were brought in as back up.

“I was going to take a shower and then got the call and thought, ‘maybe not,’” said Sally Burnell, a lifelong Kent resident and local historian.

Burnell and dozens of other residents lined N. Water Street, watching the blaze both saddened and stunned.

“It’s so… so tragic,” she sighed. “This building has sort of defined our skyline for as long as I can remember.”

“It was one of the original mill buildings for Williams Brothers Mill built about 1880,” said Howard Boyle who has worked next door for decades. “The building has been abandoned for the last 10 years. We’ve always wondered what they were going to do with it.”

Residents told FOX 8 they hope portions of the structure, which includes massive cement silos and what appears to be three smaller buildings, can be saved.

“It looks like three different buildings, but it’s actually one,” said Mark Pennell, who lives nearby and is with the Rotary Club. “Hopefully they’ll do something beautiful, but it’s sad to see something like this go.”

Kent State University issued an alert saying there is no threat to the campus, but to avoid the downtown area.

The chief said fire operations could stretch into Saturday and potentially include a demolition crew.

“We’ll be extending operations until (Saturday) and maybe even longer just because we’re looking into a demolition company that will help us get up real high to bring the burned materials and unburned materials down to where we can make a full extinguishment,” said Chief Myers.

The cause of the fire is unknown, but the State Fire Marshal, ATF and EPA are all already in Kent to assist with the investigation.