TUPELO, Miss.—The fire that tore through Custom Engineered Wheels Inc. in Tupelo, Miss., on June 23 was started by a “failed” pump system that sent flames shooting out near combustible materials while 14 workers were on duty.
All the employees escaped without injury but the blaze destroyed most of the contents of the 36,000-sq.-ft. factory, which has been described as one of the largest manufacturers of lawn mower tires in the United States.
Fire Marshal Jason Cross said June 27 that the structural integrity of the building remains in question along with the condition of the plastics processing machinery, which could be salvageable. Before the fire, the building was valued at $3.6 million and the contents at $14 million, according to a Tupelo Fire Department report.
The fire was called in at 9:48 p.m. by employees of the business, which has injection molding and assembly operations for lawn and garden products, such as lawn mowers, snow throwers and wheelbarrows.
“The piece of equipment that failed was a pump system that creates a vacuum to pick up plastic pellets and take them to the injection molding machine,” Cross said in a telephone interview. “The workers saw the fire coming out of the bottom of the pump equipment. There's a port that blows the exhaust air from the vacuum creation. I believe it goes through a diffuser to diffuse the air out into the plant. It was like a flame thrower, shooting [fire] out of the port on the bottom.”
Plywood walls nearby ignited and possibly plastic pellets, Cross said. The primary materials in the building were polyethylene and polypropylene, according to local news reports.
“I've been to other process plants and the pellets tend to be everywhere no matter how hard you try,” Cross said. “So I'd assume that the pellets themselves started to ignite and the fire consumed the building.”
Firefighters did not clear the scene until 5:25 p.m. June 24 because of flare ups from smoldering materials. They also faced another big challenge: The building was not equipped with an automatic sprinkler system because the fire code at the time of its construction in 2001 did not require it.
“That would have given us a better shot,” Fire Chief Thomas Walker said in a telephone interview.
He described the cause of the fire as ventilation equipment that overheated but deferred to Cross for a more detailed explanation. The fire has been ruled an accident, the chief added.
Plant manager Chris Marinello said he was meeting with an insurance adjuster on June 24 and might be able to provide more information later. He had told the local press that CEW leases the building but owns the production equipment, which he said is worth $20 million.
CEW has its headquarters in Warsaw, Ind. The company also serves the medical industry with products for wheelchairs.
The business was owned by Spartech Corp. until October 2009, when it sold its custom-engineered, non-pneumatic wheels unit to Hamilton Robinson Capital Partners. The firm renamed the business Custom Engineered Wheels Inc. The company also has a polyurethane foam plant in Reynosa, Mexico.