WEST MEAD TOWNSHIP — An early Monday morning fire totaled much of Chipsco Inc.’s Liberty Street Extension production facilities and caused at least an estimated $50 million in damage.

The fire was reported around 2 a.m. and took more than two hours to fight, according to West Mead Township District No. 1 Volunteer Fire Department Chief Don Bovard. “Pretty much the entire manufacturing area” was lost, he said, while the office area, located toward the front of the building, suffered minor smoke and water damage. The damage was mainly to the rear, or the eastern side, of the building, he said.

Bovard wouldn’t say if the fire was considered suspicious, only that a Pennsylvania State Police fire marshal will investigate. Trooper Darin Greenlee, community services officer for the Meadville barracks of the state police, said the investigation will likely continue for several days and the fire is being treated as a crime scene until evidence indicates otherwise.

Brian Learn, who owns the plastic injection mold-making company with his brother Blair, said Monday afternoon that it was too soon to say when or where the business will be back in operations, but the company does plan to re-build there because it owns the building and property.

When asked if they would move production until the facility could be re-built, “I would imagine so,” Learn said. “Right now, it’s pretty hectic. We haven’t been able to get in to determine

the extent of the damage,” he said, noting it’s too soon to say what will happen next. The company has been at that location for 25 years.

Learn said the facility is insured, but he didn’t have a number on the loss or the extent of the damage. Bovard said estimates are that the losses will total $50 million to $60 million.

Learn said the shop was closed at the time of the fire and no employees were injured. However, Bovard said one firefighter injured his shoulder.

Assisting the state police in the investigation were agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Though they weren’t available for comment, Bovard said the state police requested their assistance to help pay for heavy equipment that will be needed in the investigation.

The roof on some of the rear portion had collapsed, and there was a threat that more could fall, Bovard said. He said there was no danger of explosion.

Chipsco employs 45 people. One employee surveying the damage Monday was Charles Nolan of Meadville, a grinder specialist who lost some $12,000 in tools he owned and used on the job. He said he received a call from his daughter, Amber Johnson, a West Mead firefighter, around 2:30 a.m. “She called and said they got a (fire) call at Chipsco and they were rolling,” the 15-year Chipsco worker said. “She said the whole back of the building where my equipment was is really toasty.”

He said he filled three pages with a list of the gauges, vises and other specialty tools he used on the job, but he’s still not sure if they’re covered by his homeowner’s or Chipsco’s insurance.

He said he’s not alone. “There are other people who have lost just as much as I have. Some people had a lot more money (in tools) than I did.”

From here, he said he’ll seek unemployment compensation, “put it in prayer and hope for the best.”

Firefighters were called to the scene at 2 a.m. and brought the fire under control within two hours, Bovard said, noting it was difficult to fight because the building had several additions and many concrete walls and windows and doors. Most of the departments had left by 8 a.m.

Assisting at the scene were West Mead Township District No. 2, Vernon Township, Vernon Central, Cochranton, East Mead Township, Saegertown, Hayfield, Conneaut Lake, Greenwood and Randolph volunteer fire departments and Meadville Central Fire Department, Bovard said.

Gary Johnson can be reached at 724-6370 or by e-mail at gjohnson@meadvilletribune.com

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