As seen from University Way, the smoke filled the sky.
It was the fire that could be seen across town. For a little over an hour Monday, thick black smoke filled the autumn sky over Charlottesville, as the roof of what is to become the University of Virginia's newest sports facility was engulfed in flames.
An indoor practice facility to be named for former football coach George Welsh, the building stands over what had been one of two outdoor turf fields near University Hall and the John Paul Jones Arena. A $13 million project, the new structure is slated to have 78,000 square feet under roof. Unfortunately, it now needs a new roof.
The alarm went out at 12:36pm on October 8 on what was supposed to be the fire chief's day off.
"I was in my private vehicle heading up Pantops Mountain when I heard the call come over the radio," says Charlottesville Fire Chief Charles Werner. "I looked up into my rear-view mirror and said, 'What the heck is that?' It looked like U-Hall was on fire."
As the chief turned around, two ladder trucks and five engines began racing to the scene near the intersection of Emmet Street and Massie Road. There, they were informed that a torch-wielding worker had accidentally ignited the rubber roof membrane.
"The rubber was liquifying," says Chief Werner. "It was burning and spreading in the direction of the wind."
With wind coming from the north, crews turned on the sprinklers to prevent damage at the turf field located to the immediate south; and a massive tower-equipped boom pierced the sky. However, the initial streams of water could do little more than cool the conflagration, according to the chief.
That's when they positioned the "tiller aerial ladder company," a more maneuverable truck that can send a solid stream of water over 100 feet. Shortly after 1:43pm, according to a reporter's clock, that new stream began flowing, and the visible flames were extinguished within five minutes.
The chief says he asked workers to cut a "trench" around the burned portion of the roof to ensure that no flames remained. The facility is being constructed by Barton Malow, which directed inquiries to the University.
Interim University spokesperson McGregor McCance says that the torchwork came from a subcontractor, whose identity was unknown to McCance, that was tasked with installing a lightning-suppression system and whose workers were cutting through the roof from below.
McCance says that the fire never crossed the arch of the roof and ended up burning about twenty percent of the roof, which currently consists of three layers: metal substructure, insulation, and the rubber membrane. The plan was to cover the rubber membrane with a metal coating before the facility's planned February completion date.
"They were about halfway through the work," says McCance, noting that while the damage appears to be covered by insurance, no damage estimate or revised completion date is immediately available.
--story updated 4:58pm with details from University spokesperson McCance