- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 29, 2015

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - An outdated sprinkler system, alarms that didn’t activate properly and inoperable hydrants contributed to the intensity of an April 3 fire at General Electric’s Appliance Park that destroyed a massive warehouse.

The Courier-Journal reports (https://cjky.it/1SMBxa2) witnesses at the building when the fire broke out told investigators they saw nothing flow from the sprinklers and heard no alarms, even after one employee pulled a wall-mounted alarm.

The investigation by Louisville’s arson squad also found that four of the eight pumps near the building had recently been replaced but were not yet operable; another three malfunctioned when they were turned on; and water pressure at the only working pump plunged suddenly.

Investigators concluded that lack of water played a significant role in firefighters’ inability to control and extinguish the fire.

In a statement to the paper late Tuesday, GE spokewoman Kim Freeman disputed the arson squad’s report, saying sprinklers were in working order and did activate when the fire broke out. She also said that pumps provided water at the scene.

“There was nothing that could have been done to save the building despite the efforts of firefighters and GE employees,” the statement said.

Investigators quickly ruled out arson as a cause of the fire, saying instead that it was undetermined, but likely caused by an electrical short or lightning. No one was injured, but the blaze ranks as county’s largest structure fire and took a huge financial toll on the appliance maker.

GE was forced to cancel production at the park for a week and paid neighbors more than $500,000 to clean their decks, roofs and vehicles. Lawsuits filed by neighbors and a cleanup contractor are still pending. In addition, GE’s insurer has settled millions of dollars in claims with companies that had parts and equipment inside the building.

Investigators estimated the fire loss at $110 million - $50 million for the warehouse building and $60 million for its contents.

The arson report found GE had been warned in a 2014 insurance review that the 1950s-era sprinkler system, designed when appliances were mostly made from metal parts, would not be sufficient to extinguish a fire fueled by burning plastic, which releases three times the heat of ordinary combustible material. And as far back as 2001, the insurer had recommended GE upgrade a system of water tanks once used to cool manufacturing equipment that was kept around to provide fire protection. Insurers also recommended upgrading water mains and pumps.

When the fire occurred, GE had already begun that work. The company expects to complete $11 million in upgrades by the end of this year and an additional $20 million in improvements over the next four to five years.

Maj. Henry Ott, the lead investigator for arson squad, said he was surprised at how accurate the warnings in the insurance reports turned out to be.

“Everything that could go wrong went wrong that day,” Ott said. “…The Factory Mutual Report pretty much predicted what was going to happen if there was a fire.”

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Information from: The Courier-Journal, https://www.courier-journal.com

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