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Report released on Amazon fire

Little Rock fulfillment center’s opening on track, company says by Noel Oman | April 7, 2021 at 2:38 a.m.
Little Rock firefighters work to extinguish a fire Friday night at the Amazon fulfillment center that is under construction on Zeuber Road at the Little Rock Port. More photos at arkansasonline.com/43amazonfire/. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

A fire that scorched a corner of the Amazon.com Inc. fulfillment center under construction at the Port of Little Rock on Friday evening left the facility with smoke, fire and water damage on four of its five floors, according to a report on the origin and cause of the fire.

No one was hurt in the fire to which a total of four fire departments responded. The port, a Little Rock agency, has a Little Rock Fire Department fire station on the property. But some land in the port's industrial park is outside the city limits, including the 80 acres where the Amazon building sits.

The Arch Street Fire Department conducted the investigation and issued the report. Units from the Sweet Home and Quail Run volunteer fire departments also responded.

The report came the same day the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette obtained new details on the financial arrangements surrounding the project that is expected to employ more than 1,000 people.

According to S&P Global Inc., a financial ratings service that evaluated the bonds backing the construction of 19 Amazon fulfillment centers and distribution stations, including the building at the port, a fire or other calamity that shuts down a facility for more than 60 days is the only way Amazon can get out of the leases it has signed for the buildings.

Amazon's lease for the facility at the port is scheduled to begin in September and run through September 2041. The initial lease payment is almost $1.4 million per month with annual 1.5% increases.

The appraisal of the value of the building was put at $405 million.

The leases are "long-term, unconditionally guaranteed by Amazon, and without any optional termination provided (other than condemnation or casualty damage to a related property during the last year of a lease term requiring more than 60 days to repair)," S&P Global said in the March 5 report.

Amazon has indicated the fulfillment center at the port remains on track to open this year and it is still investigating the cause of the fire.

"The safety of our employees and partners is our first priority,"Amazon spokesman Daniel Martin said in an email. "Everyone was safely evacuated and there were no injuries. We are thankful for the quick response of our local first responders."

The Arch Street Volunteer Fire Department report by Assistant Chief Bradley Vick said the fire began in one corner of the third floor of the building at 7001 Zeuber Road, where employees of two subcontractors had been working.

A foreman for one of the contractors tried using fire extinguishers without success and the fire started despite workers taking safety precautions that included a "fire watch," the report said.

Vick said he arrived at the fulfillment center at 8:20 p.m., where a Little Rock Fire Department drone hovering above the building transmitting images of fire damage on the roof.

"The fire at this time was on top of the building, burning the roof membrane," he wrote.

Vick entered the building with construction supervisors and went to the area where the fire damage was concentrated -- at a front corner of the building, where spiral towers containing the building's conveyor belt system were located.

"This area had mild to moderate fire damage," the report said. "Of the 3 towers only one was still standing correctly, the far left one, which had a scissor lift beside it, had failed and collapsed on itself. [It] was pancaked down but was still upright. The middle tower had failed also and had fallen onto the right tower.

"Between the far left and middle towers, there was an LPG tank that had failed and exploded, possibly causing ... damage to the wall, lift and possibly caused the failure of the two towers. This area also had water damage due to the firefighting effort."

The report said the second floor had "some smoke and water damage" as did the fourth floor. The fifth floor sustained "heavy smoke and fire damage ... the heat had warped the metal on the roof, and causing the metal on the side of the building to warp and separate."

The report focused on the third floor as the "possible floor of origin" and where the contractors had been working and sustained "heavy fire and smoke damage."

Vick said the evidence pointed to a gas-powered cut-off saw or motor as the source of the fire.

The damage to the rest of the building above the third floor was caused by the "chimney affect," the report said. "The heat, smoke and fire all traveled upward with no other place to go, causing the damage to the fifth floor walls and ceiling. This heat also caused the panels on the outside to bow and fail.

"There was no fire load on the second, fourth and fifth floor to burn and cause damage."

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