After a two-month investigation, state police say they may never determine a cause of the fire that destroyed six buildings as it tore through Georgetown’s historic Front Street.
However, in a partial report made available to media outlets Thursday, State Law Enforcement Division investigators said the fire may be linked to a trash bag that was sitting on the back deck of a restaurant.
Several witnesses interviewed by SLED said the fire began on a wooden deck located behind the Limpin’ Janes restaurant after 5 a.m. Sept. 25. The first 911 call was made by City Councilman Paige Sawyer, who told Georgetown Police that he saw a burning 55-gallon trash bag on the deck during his morning walk.
Two other witnesses corraborated the location of the fire, but they could not tell the cause. The fire eventually flared up and grew to include several other buildings on the block. In all, six buildings, 10 businesses, and several apartments were lost. Two more buildings were damaged. No one was hurt.
The deck collapsed into the Sampit River during the fire. When SLED agents recovered the structure, they found a “large piece of melted plastic,” which they say may have been the burnt remains of the trash bag.
The owner of Limpin Janes told investigators that his restaurant was closed the day before the fire. However, Brian Shepler said he and several other employees had been refinishing tables with linseed oil that afternoon. Shepler said they threw the oil-covered rags into the trash.
Since linseed oil is flammable under the right conditions, investigators say those rags may have been the cause of the fire.
“Although a definitive cause of the fire cannot be determined at this time, the eyewitness accounts and video evidence as to the origin of the fire are consistent with statements gathered during the investigation as to the location of the improperly disposed of linseed oil application materials,” according to the SLED report.
“Rags soaked with linseed oil stored in a pile are considered a fire hazard because they provide a large surface area for oxidation of the oil,” the report noted. “Shepler stated that he placed all the rags in a bag and then into the garbage, which would make conditions favorable to spontaneous combustion to occur and (start) a slow progressing fire.”
However, investigators say that there is no evidence to show criminal wrongdoing by Shepler.
According to the report, surveillance video showed an individual walking outside from a neighboring apartment towards Front Street an hour before the fire. However, investigators said they do not think the individual is a suspec as the fire did not start for another hour.