LAWRENCE — The search for what sparked the inferno that destroyed a 130-year-old mill in just two hours Monday ended at dusk yesterday, when investigators left the South Canal Street site without disclosing what they found, if anything.
Acting fire Chief John Marsh said the team from the state Department of Fire Services called him about 5 p.m. to report their work was done, allowing the city to begin issuing the building code violations against the owner that will be a first step in demolishing the teetering three-story brick walls that are the last remains of the industrial landmark.
“I don’t know if they found a cause,” Marsh said. “But they’re through with what they need the site for.”
State Police Sgt. Don Bossi, who led the team of investigators, could not be reached for comment last night.
From the beginning, the investigation focused on an area just inside the front door, where witnesses who reported the fire about 4:30 Monday afternoon and the first firefighters to arrive said they saw the first glow.
Throughout the day yesterday, a cluster of state investigators and local firemen dug through the scorched and sopping pile of the bricks, beams, roofing and other debris that collapsed to the ground floor inside the door as the fire raged. The effort was aided by a backhoe owned by a friend of a city firefighter who donated the service, which otherwise would have been paid for by an insurance company had the building been insured.
The next bill — for demolition — could be as much as $500,000 and is less likely to be covered by volunteers, Building Commissioner Peter Blanchette said.
Because the building was uninsured and its owner, David Padellaro, already owes the city $5.4 million in unpaid property taxes, interest and other fees, the city may be faced with leaving at least part of the charred eyesore standing just off Broadway at a gateway to the city, or paying for the demolition itself and placing one more lien onto the stack that already exists on the property.
“As much as I’m hoping he does something, I think the chances are very slim,” Blanchette said about the likelihood Padellaro will pay for the demolition.
Padellaro declined to comment about the fire or speculate about its cause when reached Tuesday, saying only that state police had questioned him. He provided firefighters with floor plans of the mill Monday night.
The city has been placing liens on the property through a succession of owners since 2002, even while allowing at least two sales to go through, tax records show. The first unpaid tax bill dates to 2002, when the building still was owned by the Merrimack Paper Co., which built the mill in 1880 and sold it to Andover developer Stephen Stapinski for $82,000 in 2005.
After failing to get the city to approve his plans to build a mixed commercial and residential project on the land, Stapinski sold it to Padellaro in 2010 for $1 in a deal city officials said was designed to dodge the overdue property taxes. The bill then amounted to about $4 million.
“It’s a complicated building,” Blanchette said. “Some parts go underground close to two and a half stories. We’re next to the river. We have raceways and waterways directly underneath the buildings. All these issues have to be worked out. It’s not like, in a neighborhood when a three-decker comes down and a wrecking ball comes in and knocks it down, and we fill the basement to grade. The scope of this job is 20 times that.”
Marsh said the cause of the fire is “questionable” because there is no obvious source, making it likely an act of God or man. He stopped short of saying the cause is suspicious.
“There was nothing in there that should start a fire,” Marsh said. “No gas pipe that cracked. No electrical wiring that overheated in a wall.”