KNOXVILLE (WATE) — Investigators want to know why the sprinkler system wasn’t on during a fire that destroyed much of Sports Belle, Inc. in North Knoxville Sunday night.
Knoxville firefighters say when they arrived at the scene around 9:30 p.m., they found heavy smoke and flames coming from the right side of the business at 6723 Pleasant Ridge Road, off Clinton Highway.
Fire investigators are checking whether the sprinkler system being off was a malfunction or sabotage. They haven’t ruled out considering the fire suspicious.
The fire burned for almost an hour before someone called in about it. If the sprinkler system had been enacted, damage to the building would have been drastically decreased.
No one was in the building at the time of the blaze and no injuries were reported.
The company makes uniforms and apparel for football, basketball, baseball, softball, volleyball and coaching.
The owner, Jesse Lee, was out of town so his daughter, Melissa Lee, got the call and rushed to the scene.
“When I got here, there were all kinds of fire trucks, police trucks and smoke. This is a 34-year-old building and I’m 36-years-old so all my life it’s been there. It was pretty horrific to see,” Lee said.
It took 50 firefighters almost 12 hours to fully extinguish the fire. It took crews a while to get inside the building because they were afraid the badly damaged roof could collapse.
“In this type of construction, it’s sound for day-to-day activities but under fire, that wrecks the structural integrity and firefighters get killed a lot of time when they go into the building like this,” said Rural/Metro Battalion Chief Jeff Devlin. “So we take that very seriously.”
Monday morning, employees and the owner gathered to view what’s left of their company.
“Oh, I just couldn’t believe it. My friend called me and said that her friend saw it on the news and they called me and I just could not believe it,” said one of the employees, Polly Cardwell.
Cardwell has been working in the building for 16 years. It’s hard for her to grasp that the thousands of uniforms she’ inspected for 2,500 high schools and college teams are all gone.
“It’s our work, our hard work,” Cardwell said. “You know, if it comes back we’ll just have to start from scratch and do it again, but I will be right here with them.”
Fire investigators say it will take a couple days to comb through the damage and determine a cause.
In the meantime, employees say Sports Belle, Inc. will continue someplace else.
“I’m worried about it. I want to come back to work but is just one of those things,” Cardwell said.
The owner and vice president are looking for locations. They’ve temporarily set up shop next door in space provided by Powell Auction and Realty.
Sports Belle, Inc. has been in business since 1974.
Several famous coaches and athletes have worn Sports Belle uniforms including UT men’s basketball head coach Bruce Pearl and former Vols QB Peyton Manning, who went on to lead the Indianapolis Colts to a Superbowl victory.
Sports Belle has warehouses across the country. The Knoxville location employees 45 people.