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Dealership fire suspicious

A fire at a Washington car dealership that sent six local firefighters to the emergency room has been ruled suspicious by the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office.

Major Kenneth Watson said the fire’s lack of a clear source is one of the reasons why investigators at the state level were invited to Washington to study the aftermath.

“We requested the (State Bureau of Investigation) help us with the processing of the fire scene, but the responsibility of the bulk of the investigation will be ours,” said Watson.

On Wednesday, once the fire was fully extinguished and cooled off enough so they could get into the building and begin moving things around, investigators began searching for the fire’s cause.

According to Washington Fire Chief Robbie Rose, unless the source is obvious, determining the point of origin often involves a process of elimination — eliminating the things that didn’t cause it.

The dealership, Coastal Car Connection, on U.S. Highway 264 West, went up in flames around 9 p.m. Tuesday night.

Washington Fire-Rescue-EMS arrived first on the scene, dispatched out as mutual aid. They fell back into a support position when the Clarks Neck Volunteer Fire Department arrived.

“Basically the first people who arrive on the scene…(according to the) National Incident Command System….assumes command,” said Rose. “Primarily it was our people doing the tactical stuff then. As volunteers started arriving in trucks and personal vehicles, once their chief officer got on scene, our guys transferred command. We supported the attack until the fire was out and under control.”

At the fire, a consortium of Washington and Clarks Neck firefighters not only battled the blaze, but dehydration and heat exhaustion due to the warm night and a hot fire as well, said John Pack, Beaufort County Emergency Management Coordinator.

Five Clarks Neck volunteers succumbed to the heat and were taken to Vidant Beaufort Hospital for treatment. They were release early Wednesday morning.

“All the firefighters are going to be okay,” said Pack. “It’s going to take a few days. You don’t get over that dehydration and heat exhaustion immediately.”

Clarks Neck volunteer firefighter and sheriff’s office patrol sergeant, Michael Sheppard, was also injured when the roof beneath him gave way. At the time, fire personnel was continuing to fight the fire while searching for hot spots to make sure there were no areas that were going to rekindle after the fire crews packed up and left, said Watson.

The blaze was extinguished shortly after midnight, though fire personnel was at the scene until 2 a.m.

For Pack, the incident allowed him to see the county’s emergency plans in practice—behind the scenes firefighters were at the ready at Old Ford, Chocowinity, and Bunyan volunteer fire departments; the three EMS units that responded to the fire had backup on hand at Broad Creek and Chocowinity so quick service would still be provided in case of another emergency in the county.

“All of them did a great job of working together on the scene,” said Pack. “You couldn’t have scripted it better… I didn’t have to say a word and they did the right thing, so that shows that the plan works.”

Pack had high praise for both staff and patients at Vidant Beaufort Hospital. The injured firefighters received immediate treatment and despite an emergency room full of patients, there was no complaint, he said.

“They seemed to understand the severity of the issue,” he added.

While the local firefighters are recovering, the sheriff’s office will continue its investigation of the fire.

“We’re looking at it,” said Maj. Watson. “We’re deeming it suspicious until we determine the source.”