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The Butler Building in Athens burned to the ground last week. The Athens Fire Department and Limestone County volunteer firefighters fought the blaze.
Daily photo by Jonathan Palmer
The Butler Building in Athens burned to the ground last week. The Athens Fire Department and Limestone County volunteer firefighters fought the blaze.

Athens building fire ruled arson
Suspect confesses to starting Butler blaze, officials say

By Holly Hollman
hhollman@decaturdaily.com 340-2445

ATHENS — Authorities have ruled the former Butler building fire that erupted Aug. 27 was arson, and one person has confessed to starting the fire, according to authorities.

A suspect confessed Tuesday night, but is not under arrest.

The state fire marshal's office is investigating, along with Athens fire and police and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Athens Fire Chief Cliff Christopher said the case likely will go to a grand jury.

He said he could not elaborate on how the arsonist started the fire.

State Fire Marshal Ed Paulk said the investigation is ongoing, and he would not release information about what caused the fire. He would not comment about any confession or a suspect.

"We have concluded the fire was intentionally set," Paulk said. "When we are able to make an arrest in the case, we will be able to release more information."

The state, a bomb unit from Huntsville police, a hazardous materials unit from Florence police, Athens fire and Athens police returned to the scene Thursday after Deputy Fire Marshal Jimmy Collier found two grenades in the rubble.

Christopher said one grenade had its pin intact and another had a hole in it.

"They were checked out and removed," Christopher said. "Turns out they had been stored there for a long time and aren't the reason for the fire."

Christopher said Collier was looking at wiring around the breaker box when he spotted the grenades.

"It alarmed him, and he took precautionary measures," Christopher said.

Dr. Joe Cannon and his wife Laurie used the building on West Market Street to store furniture and appliances. They bought the building, next to Athens-Limestone Hospital, in 2001 or 2002 from the Butler family.

Artie Butler said his grandfather and father started a business at that site.

"It was an old barn and they had auctions there," Butler said.

According to tax records, the business dates to at least 1950.

They kept adding to the building and turned it into a furniture store. Butler said it operated there until 1999, when Butler's Home Furnishings moved to U.S. 72.

The building was a two-story, 26,000-square-foot structure. During the fire, flames soared 30 to 40 feet, drawing sightseers who captured the blaze with their camera phones.

Some witnesses said they heard an explosion-type sound when the fire first erupted.

City Councilman Ronnie Marks was en route to a council meeting when he drove past the structure and saw the fire.

Marks said he called the mayor's office and learned no one had called the Fire Department.

Assistant Chief Danny Southard said flames were shooting through the roof when units arrived.

The department's entire staff battled the blaze while county volunteer fire departments manned the city's stations.

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