The fire that destroyed the Lewis Smith shopping center in Whiteville on Friday was set, City Fire Marshal Hal Lowder said.
Lowder said he worked with State Bureau of Investigation arson specialists to determine that the fire was caused “by a person.
“We can’t say for sure whether it was arson or an accident,” Lowder said.
Firefighters were called to the Lewis Smith Shopping Center off Commerce Street shortly before 1 p.m. to a fire at the former Radio Shack and Gurganious feed store. Flames were visible through the roof at the rear of the building upon their arrival.
Whiteville Fire Department is being assisted by units from Lake Waccamaw, North Whiteville, Hallsboro, White Marsh Welches Creek, Brunswick, Acme-Delco-Riegelwood, and Klondyke. Whiteville Rescue, Whiteville Police and the city fire marshal’s office were also on scene.
The first part of the shopping center was constructed in the 1950s, and several stores expanded or were added through the 1970s. The entire strip of buildings was flooded during Matthew, but even more water went through the structure during Florence. Waterlines three feet high were visible on the walls of one of the closed businesses last year. The city was in negotiations with the owners to remove the building, which had been for sale.
An antique store, a flooring retailer, Gurganious and Radio Shack were the most recent tenants in the building. All had been closed for some time.
Police Chief Douglas Ipock said that there have been no reports of any homeless persons living in the building. Lowder said there was no electricity to the building.
Firefighters had to call in the assistance of an excavator to break down a rear wall of the building Friday evening to gain access to some areas that were still burning hours after the initial call. Multiple layers of roofing materials also gave the fire more places to remain concealed during the response.
The cause of the fire is undetermined.
This is a developing story.