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Driver whose crash sparked Virginia warehouse fire is dead; community has questions about safety

Posted at 4:17 PM, Jul 08, 2024

SOUTH HILL, Va. — One person was killed in a massive fire Saturday at the Nutrien Ag Solutions warehouse on West Danville Street in South Hill, Virginia, officials confirmed Monday. The driver was later identified as Jennifer A. Fields, 41, of South Hill.

South Hill Volunteer Fire Department firefighter Rickie Bowen said in his 16 years fighting fires, Saturday afternoon’s fire was the largest he'd ever seen.

"It was enough to draw your chest,” said Bowen. “Like bombs going off.”

More than 150 firefighters from across Southside Virginia battled the fire for around 24 hours.

Investigators said the fire started when a woman drove into a propane tank outside the facility around 2 p.m. Police later confirmed the driver died in the crash.

"The vehicle had struck a light pole, the Nutrien building at 501 W. Danville St., and two propane tanks on the property," South Hill Police said in a Monday update."The preliminary investigation indicates that speed was a factor in this crash. The crash remains under investigation."

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Within an hour, the massive fire sent 15 firefighters to the hospital for heat exhaustion, chemical exposure, and minor scrapes and burns. All 15 have been released, according to fire officials.

“We always train for these big incidents. We never want to see it,” Bowne said.

The top of an aerial truck used to battle the fire was still covered in soot on Monday from Saturday’s fire, the scent still lingering in the firehouse.

Bowen described arriving and seeing ash fall down, almost like rain.

“It’s been hectic around here,” he said. “[But] our community’s been wonderful to us.”

That community, South Hill Town Manager Keli Reekes said, kept her faith going.

“That mutual aid is there,” Reekes said. “It pulled everybody together.”

15 firefighters hurt battling massive fertilizer warehouse fire in South Hill

Reekes said her phone was flooded with texts and calls on Saturday from neighbors searching for answers, particularly about the placement of the propane tanks outside of Nutrien Ag’s facility.

“The Fire Marshall is here, doing an investigation or a look into all of those elements, not just the tanks, but obviously the concerns of the building, the suppression systems, and that type of thing,” Reekes said.

She commended the town’s volunteer fire department and neighboring agencies who responded to the fire.

“There are people here who know what they’re doing,” she said. “They are more than prepared.”

Though the sense of community has been strong, Reekes said the destruction of the facility is a massive loss, particularly to local farmers.

“It’s been here for years and years, decades. It has been here through the life of this community,” Reekes said. “I’ve had people tell me they used to go in there and play as a child. It’s a huge loss to the town."

Reekes and Bowen commented on the overwhelming support shown to first responders, who say donations continue to come in.

“The community really comes together when needed,” Reekes said. “I love that about our small town.”

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