Abandoned mills could pose problems for firefighters

By Laurie Bernstein - bio | email

COLUMBUS, GA (WTVM) - They may look like stripped, abandoned buildings, but inside the empty mills of Columbus, it's a thieve's paradise, once filled with millions of dollars in copper, aluminum and brass.

"They were built a long time ago, and the metals they have, as well as some of the flooring, brings in a pretty good dollar. It's real enticing for thieves to want to go in," said Chief Thomas Streeter, the Columbus Fire Marshall.

From time to time, these break-ins cause problems for Chief Streeter and his men, and they are worried the mills still standing could end up like the Bibb Mill, burned to the ground because of the carelessness of thieves and vagrants.

In the last six months, several fires have sparked at the Swift Mill downtown and the Swift Boland Plant on Flat Rock Road, with some thought to come at the hands of thieves.

"They're going in with small torches, trying to cut the metal out, and of course, with those mills being as old as they are, just a small spark can set it up in flames," said Chief Streeter.

The Muscogee County Sheriff's Department has stepped up patrols around these abandoned mills, even making arrests from time to time.

The owners of these mills also try to take protective measures, such as putting up metal fences or placing steel bars over the windows.

Still, the ingenuity of these thieves manages to surprise them every time.

"They've actually chiseled foot holes into the brick walls to climb 18 feet into open windows," said Brent Buck, the owner of the Old Bibb Mill, talking about problems he used to have before a fire claimed his building.

"The owners have private security patrolling from time to time, but it's a very large facility, and it's pretty tough to try and keep people out. If they want to get in, they'll find a way," said Chief Streeter.

It's important to note that the cause of the fire at the Bibb Mill has not yet been determined, but fire officials say copper thieves and vagrants were problems there in the past, and it could very well be that the fire was man-made.