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Gate malfunction raises worry for fire crews

South Boston firefighters are prepared to extinguish blazes, but when they have to battle railroad crossing gates for hours before making it to the scene of the fire, “It’s not good,” said South Boston Fire Chief Steve Phillips.

That’s exactly what happened Thursday night around 9:30 when South Boston firefighters were called to the Dollar General distribution warehouse on Philpott Road for a fire alarm. 

“The first call that came in was that a fire alarm was going off, but shortly after that someone in the plant called to report it was an actual fire inside the building,” Phillips said.

 South Boston firefighters responded with an engine and equipment truck, and Turbeville and Cluster Springs volunteer fire departments were called to assist.

South Boston’s engine and equipment truck were able to cross the railroad tracks on Highway 58, but numerous firefighters were blocked when the crossing arms malfunctioned trapping firefighters on “the wrong side of the tracks.”

Meanwhile, Dollar General employees took matters into their own hands, according to Phillips, using fire extinguishers to put out a fire on a pallet of children’s goggles that was located in the shipping area of the plant.

“Luckily, another pallet wasn’t on top of it, and the employees were able to use extinguishers to pretty much extinguish it. Then they took a forklift and moved it to the rear door,” the fire chief said.

The fire was contained to “a few boxes on top of the pallet,” according to Phillips, who added, “A little smoke got inside the plant.”

No damage was reported to any nearby pallets, and employees were cleaning up the fire extinguisher powder when firefighters arrived on the scene.

Following protocol, employees were evacuated to the outside of the plant into the sleet and freezing rain when the fire alarm was activated.

No one was hurt in the fire, Phillips said, and damage was estimated at $2,300.

The cause of the fire has not been determined, but Phillips said Dollar General officials told him no smoking is allowed inside the plant.

“It could have been a whole lot worse,” the chief said.

Norfolk Southern held all trains after being contacted the crossing gates were malfunctioning, but Phillips said the railroad had a two-hour response time before anyone could get to the tracks to repair the problem. 

“If it had been a major fire at the plant, every minute those firefighters couldn’t get there because of the crossing arms malfunctioning would mean the fire would be growing,” Phillips said. “Something has got to be done.”