By TESS HOLLISthollis@ledger-enquirer.com
The old Swift Denim mill on Sixth Avenue was damaged by fire Wednesday afternoon.
Fire Marshal Tommy Streeter, of the Columbus Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services, said the first firefighters arrived on the scene around 4:30 p.m. No one was injured in the blaze and firefighters had the fire contained in 20 to 30 minutes but not completely put out.
"The building was vacant, there was just demolition work being done on the building," Streeter said of the mill at 1410 Sixth Ave. Streeter said fire officials would not know the cause of the fire and the extent of the damage until the smoke cleared and they could investigate the scene. Rumors circulated that the fire was part of a Fort Benning military exercise. Deputy Fire Chief Robert Futrell confirmed that an exercise was going on in the mill.
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"I'm not sure what they were doing, but the military was conducting an exercise," Futrell said. Nate Snook of the Fort Benning Public Affairs Office said if there was any training done off-post the PAO would be notified about it.
"It's a pretty big deal whenever they do off-post training, so this was not associated with Benning," Snook said. "A lot of people are notified about it in order to prepare for the exercise."
Mike Chancey works across the street from the mill. He told reporters he heard what he thought were demolition crews setting off about a dozen explosions in the building earlier in the day. "It was just rocking," Chancey said.
Another worker, Jason Rosinbaum, said the blasts were so powerful that people in the area could feel the concussions.
Chancey and Rosinbaum both said the explosions stopped two or three hours before the fire was reported.
As firefighters battled the blaze, police blocked Sixth Avenue between 14th and Linwood Boulevard and 15th Street at Fifth Avenue.
Bill Reeves, owner of Reeves Wrecking is part of the crew doing demolition work to the mill, but he said his crew was not doing work today.
"Thank goodness we were not out there today," he said. "We have been removing asbestos, but we don't do any blasting when we do work there."
With sons Benjamin and Jonathan and friend Matthew Zarby, Dawn Merva was working on a fence for the Ronald McDonald House, 1959 Hamilton Road, when she saw the smoke about 4:15 p.m. Wednesday.
"It was just as black as could be," said Dawn Merva. Jonathan Merva left his brother's Eagle Scout project and drove toward the smoke. He got to the old mill before firefighters arrived, and saw flames and smoke coming from the rear of the third floor, he said.
Swift Mill closed its operations in 2006 and sold the building to a company in North Carolina. The mill has nearly 80,000 square feet.
Staff writers Tim Chitwood, Lily Gordon and Chuck Williams contributed to this report.