EAST SPENCER, NC (WBTV) - A massive fire that could be seen for miles around heavily damaged a former school and community center in East Spencer on Tuesday night, and now investigators are poised to get inside the smoldering ruins to find out how the fire started.
Witnesses began calling 911 just after 7:30 pm, saying that flames were visible through the windows. By the time firefighters arrived the fire had gotten a good head start and flames were already starting to break through the roof.
By 10:00 pm the incident had was a five alarm fire with at least 75 firefighters working to contain the fire and put out hot spots at the former school on S. Long Street.
"It quickly went to a second alarm, then it went to a fifth alarm for more water and more tankers," said Rowan County Fire Marshal Deborah Koontz Horne.
Dozens of people stood on the sidewalk across the street or in the church parking lot next to the school to watch the fire and to see firefighters working on the ground and from aerial platforms to drown out the flames.
Horne said on Tuesday night that it was difficult to began the investigation because the fire was so massive. There was speculation that "squatters" may have been using the buildings for shelter, but as of late Tuesday night it was not known if that had anything to do with the fire.
After being used for various purposes over the last few years, the building had recently become vacant, according to Horne.
"The Dunbar Center has been a staple in this community for over 50 years," Horne added.
On Wednesday morning Horne told WBTV that she was hopeful that investigators, both local and from the SBI, could get inside the building today. Horne also said she was thankful that no firefighters were injured battling the fire.
Many in the community who attended the school years ago took to social media Tuesday night.
"Keep hearing waves of sirens as they travel up to fight the blaze," Laurie Klaus wrote. "So sad."
"Praying for the firefighters," Timothy Wells wrote.
"Sad," wrote Melissa Philips. "Have a lot of memories in that old place.