Rotting wheat in the mill tower ‘was a fire hazard,’ former employee says

Fire fighters and demolition crews worked to tear down parts of the Kent mill structure overnight Dec. 2. Photo by Gavin Friess

Manouchehr Salehi stared at the flames shooting from the roof of the Kent mill, a building his wife’s company bought in 2017 with dreams of transforming it into residential units.

A $15 million renovation he said they had planned for 2023 disappeared in a haze of steam and smoke.

No, he said, no one had been working on the roof. No, since they bought it, no one had been in the section of the building that was burning. No, there were no utilities on at the building: no electricity, no gas. Yes, he said, the building was insured. Beyond that, he had no words.

He watched for hours, even as day turned to night and over a dozen fire companies dwindled to a few. Water from aerial hoses continued to douse flames that seemed to rekindle, and rekindle again.

By 7:30 p.m. Dec. 2, a plan to open the south side of the burning structure known as the crib, then bare the rear of it, and finally open the north side, was still on hold. Even though Kent Fire Chief Bill Myers said the operation was to have begun at 5:30 p.m., demolition crews were still waiting for the equipment they needed.

Photo by Gavin Friess

Myers could provide no assurance that the buildings facing North Water Street could be saved. It could be unsafe to leave them standing. Once they could get in there, engineers would make that determination, he said.

Night had already fallen. A truck from the Portage County Sheriff’s Office appeared, hauling racks of powerful lights. 

Trains on Kent’s lower CSX tracks had been running since midday, but the upper tracks, still pounded by falling debris, would be closed until Monday. The crowds had dwindled to all but a hardy few. North Water Street’s nightlife businesses were shuttered, and those who lived close to the mill wondered aloud when life would return to normal.

Kent’s iconic mill waited to be demolished. Work started overnight and continued Saturday.

Former employee describes cleanup

Lou Lawson had worked at the mill for 12 years until it closed in September 2016. He remained on staff another year, joining a crew of about a half dozen workers tasked with removing machinery to send to corporate headquarters in Michigan and other places.

“We tried to clean up as much as we could, but if you’ve ever spilled flour somewhere, you know it’s going to be coming up everywhere.”

Lawson said flour in the walls could have spontaneously combusted or “it could have been the methane gas buildup from the wheat that’s decaying in there.”

The owner of the building is The Tulips LLC, a company registered to Badreeyeh Al Hasawi of Kent. Her husband, Salehi, reached by phone Saturday, said he had no comment about what Lawson described and declined to provide a way to contact Al Hasawi. He said The Tulips would make a statement next week.

Asked to comment on Lawson’s claim that flour and wheat was left inside the mill, Star of the West Milling Co. said it did not know what was in the mill because it is no longer the owner.

“The mill was decommissioned in 2016 and sold to a developer in 2019. Since we are not the owners, we cannot speculate on what may have been in the mill,” said Lisa Woodke, sustainability director for the company.

Onlookers voiced opinions that included arson, intentional or otherwise. If a final determination can be made, it will come from the State Fire Marshal’s office. Its personnel were on scene Friday and will return Monday, Kent firefighters said.

Looking at the Star of the West Mill (built by the Williams Brothers in 1879-1880) from North Water Street, Kent’s iconic white concrete silos loom on the north side, with a white concrete tower behind them. Between the mill and silos is a concrete pad where trucks pulled in and loaded up. The angles were a challenge: while the mill was operational, North Water Street traffic jams were common as semis blocked the street.

South of the loading area is a brick building Lawson said was used to store fabrics for the sifters. It also housed what he called a “load out sifter” used to sift the flour prior to being shipped out.

On Saturday morning, the second story was open to the elements: Myers said an explosion that occurred three minutes after firefighters arrived blew the front wall out and sent bricks flying over North Water Street. A silver SUV remained parked in front, smashed and all but covered with bricks.

Watch a video of the explosion.

Owners of GRAZERS across the street from the Kent mill captured video of the moment the building exploded. Image courtesy of GRAZERS

The center brick building was the original mill, which local historian and Hometown Bank Chairman Howard Boyle said was built in the 1880s and featured solid oak framing from below ground to the roof. Later, two floors above would be used for sifters and various operations that removed impurities from the flour.

The attic, Lawson said, was the starting point for separating the product, and the basement contained a large electric motor that ran the entire mill.

“There were two or three dozen elevators that lifted wheat, and elevator buckets probably as big as a man’s hand that would pick up the wheat and dump it up in the attic, in a spout, and it would go down throughout the mill,” Lawson said. “It would go through different rolls, different sifters, and you sifted out the flour from the byproduct. We had six bins that we would store the milled flour in to be shipped on.”

The building to the south of the original mill, where the windows blew out but the wall seemed intact, was used for operations and for offices. The third floor housed a lab to test products. That job, Lawson said, included baking cookies.

‘The crib’ was a hazard

Looking at the structure from the rear, a large brown building loomed above the others. It seemed to be the center of the fire, and to onlookers it appeared as though the fire spread from top to bottom.

That building, Lawson said, was “the crib,” which he described as “a big tube. The bins go straight up. A lot of them were empty, but there were some that still had some wheat in there.”

“Wheat would come in through the back on the rails or the trucks, and they would store it first in the white concrete structures just to the north, the tall white structures,” Lawson said. “We would move it from the concrete to the crib, the dark brown part that caught on fire. From there (in the building to the south) we would clean the wheat and we would start the milling process.”

Photo by Gavin Friess

Lawson’s attention focused on the crib’s many tubes and in its floor-to-ceiling square wooden bins, where he said methane gas could easily have created a disastrous situation.

“As wheat decays it puts out methane, so one little spark, or one little open flame can set that off: boom! It looks like there was a small explosion in the front of the building. There’s something that did something.”

The crib was also where wheat that was going to be mixed with other wheat was stored, he said.

“We would move it into the cleaning house, which is the part of the mill just to the south. We would clean the wheat, temper the wheat there,” he said.

Lawson said the crib should have been taken down a long time ago even though Kent residents and leaders wanted to preserve the building for its historical significance.

Photo by Gavin Friess

“Obviously it was a fire hazard,” he said. “There’s nothing they could do with that building other than bring it down. They needed to dismantle it piece by piece.”

Dismissing the current owner’s plan to transform the mill into residential units as “big thinking,” Lawson insisted the crib was structurally unsound.

“I worked there. I’ve seen so much stuff in there that made that building unsafe. Not so much a fire hazard. We did a lot to mitigate any kind of hazard,” he said.

Typical employee tasks included monitoring the heat that bearings on equipment produced, cleaning dust, ensuring emergency lights worked, and checking fire extinguishers on a monthly basis.

“It’s a huge structure. We had over 50 fire extinguishers that we had to make sure were there and ready to go so this sort of thing would never happen,” Lawson said.

Behind the south storage building was another one housing six bins used to store finished products, finished flour. Saturday morning the bins lay open to the elements, awaiting demolition.

Gazing at the ongoing demolition work Saturday morning, retired architect Doug Fuller expressed his hope that the original three buildings fronting North Water Street could be saved. Too often, he said, engineers look for reasons to raze old structures instead of looking for reasons and ways to save them.

Photo by Gavin Friess

Correction: This story originally misidentified Salehi as Al Hasawi and identified Salehi as the owner because he told a reporter he owned the building. He later clarified his wife is the owner, and business filings confirm Al Hasawi as the owner.

Ben Wolford contributed reporting.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.