The fire was still burning when Scott King and Mandy Mullins went home Thursday.
The air was foul and the streets surrounding 401 East Morelia Ave. were barricaded while firefighters worked to extinguish Wednesday’s massive blaze in the Ft. Loudon Waste and Recycling facility just outside their back door. But it had already cost them $260 to rent a motel room, plus the cost of a rental car to get them to work (they’d evacuated on foot), and they needed to get back home.
The waking nightmare started when their teenaged daughters, home because the younger girl was ill with an asthma attack, called them shortly after 3 p.m. Wednesday. The girls were crying and stuff was exploding and the dog was howling.
Preliminary explanations indicate that a forklift backfired and set a pile of cardboard ablaze. Knoxville Fire Department Public Information Officer D.J. Corcoran has pictures of the mangled remains of propane tanks.
By Thursday afternoon the smoke had turned from midnight black to a whiter shade of pale, and Scott was sitting on his porch watching the action. The Knoxville-Knox County Emergency Management Agency’s massive bus was parked in front of his house, and a clot of police were stationed at the corner of Morelia and Hancock Street. Behind Scott’s house, KFD aerial towers were shooting water onto the wreckage of the big warehouse that firefighters had finished knocking down the night before. The air reeked of burnt plastic.
Scott and Mandy are surprisingly calm about the disaster they’ve been caught up in. They’ve lived there for nine years, about the same amount of time that Ft. Loudon Recycling has been ruining property values in that section of the popular Oakwood Lincoln Park neighborhood.
“One more year and we own it,” Scott said. They said they are not at all surprised by what has happened.
“It ain’t like we didn’t think it would happen some day,” he said. They’d been dealing with rats and garbage and having their car damaged in a hit-and-run committed by a Ft. Loudon employee. The garbage that blows off the trucks and the piles on the property include plastic pill bottles – “hundreds of them” – and pieces of dismembered flip-flops. Scott called his homeowners insurance carrier and was told that the recycling company’s insurance would have to take care of any damage (he did not sound confident).
Corcoran said there were 65 firefighters working to contain the fire at its peak, with three aerial units, six ladder companies, Chief Stan Sharp and Deputy Chiefs Larry Compton and Mark Moffatt. Forty police officers were on the scene making sure everyone was notified and helping residents evacuate. Workers from other city departments and the Knoxville Utilities Board were on duty there, too.
Scott and Mandy aren’t alone in considering the recycling plant a nuisance. The neighbors have been complaining for years, to no avail.
Oakwood Lincoln Park, where the recycling plant is located, is one of the largest, most densely populated residential neighborhoods in Knoxville, stretching north to south from Sharp’s Ridge to Woodland Drive and east to west from Broadway to North Central. Why, many wonder, is a heavy industrial use plopped down so close to so many homes?
OLP is a conglomerate of several smaller, older neighborhoods with a railroad running through its heart. The area where the recycling plant is was originally known as the Atkins Addition, named for builder/industrialist Clay Brown Atkin, who developed Oakwood. Atkin also had a manufacturing plant that became the leading producer of hardwood mantels in the world.
Railroads were extremely powerful entities during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and were able to control zoning laws to suit them. But it wasn’t just the influence of robber barons that caused industrial and residential areas to be cheek-to-jowl. It was practical to locate producers of manufactured goods next to the railroad tracks, and C.B. Atkin was a practical guy, so he put his plant next to the tracks, very close to the present-day site of Ft. Loudon Recycling.
Employees found it convenient to buy homes there, and they were able to walk to work. Longtime neighborhood resident Larry Cox (a former Knoxville City Council member who owns the Chicken City store on the corner of Morelia and Central) remembers the Atkin plant burning down around 1950. Silver Furniture Manufacturing was a later occupant of the site and suffered a serious fire in the ’70s.
The recycling plant’s owner, who has been fined repeatedly in the past, has publicly declared his business a total loss. He has other problems, as well:
City tax records indicate that Ft. Loudon Waste and Recycling has not paid property taxes since 2015 and owes $110,246.33.