LOWELL | A construction company working inside the former Rieter Automotive building, 101 W. Oakley Ave., is believed to have accidentally sparked a spectacular fire at the abandoned plant shortly before noon Wednesday.
Jimmy Harper, a project manager for BRT Indiana LLC, a recycling and sales company, said crews were moving equipment and cutting beams when an unidentified material caught fire.
Harper, who was working inside the building with 11 other employees, said sprinklers in the building were shut off and crews could not control the flames with fire extinguishers.
All 12 workers escaped unharmed, and no other injuries were reported.
Harper said the crews had been working in the building for about a month, preparing it for auction.
At least a dozen fire departments throughout the area responded to the call. Smoke was visible for miles, including as far as Highland.
The Lake County Sheriff's Department's helicopter was used to monitor the fire. The helicopter occasionally landed in a field near the building.
Several fire hoses covered surrounding streets. Some hoses had to be placed over nearby railroad tracks to reach firetrucks.
At one point, a portion of the side of the structure crumbled and collapsed onto the tracks. Flames continued to burn some pieces of the rubble after it fell.
The fallen pieces didn't cause injuries or damage fire equipment.
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Large excavation equipment was driven to the scene about 3:15 p.m., but it wasn't immediately used. The fire appeared to be well contained at that time, but black smoke still was visible in the facility's two towers.
Lowell Fire Chief Clint Gorball said neither the cause of the blaze or the amount of damage was known Wednesday night.
Several streets around the structure were blocked, but that didn't stop large crowds from gathering in yards to watch firefighters battle the massive blaze and take pictures of the flames and dark smoke.
Among the spectators were former Rieter employees.
"It was a good place to work," former employee Cliff Robertson said.
John Lucas, who retired from the company in 2004, said the building previously contained some flammable material, such as oil, but he wasn't sure if the materials still were in the structure when the fire occurred.
"I can't remember a fire like this," Lucas said.
The building previously housed Globe Industries, and it later was bought by Rieter Automotive Systems, a division of Winterhur, Switzerland-based Rieter Group, which produced noise-control and automotive trim products for automobile and appliance manufacturers.
The plant closed Nov. 11.
Wilbur Cox, director of community development for the town of Lowell, said Rieter sold the Lowell property to WEL Companies Inc., a De Pere, Wis.-based firm within the past 30 days. He said the company sought to dismantle equipment, some of which was up for auction.