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Fire, partial roof collapse at Grafton prison building after severe weather rolls through Lorain County

Posted at 5:34 PM, Jun 19, 2024

LORAIN COUNTY, Ohio — Crews were cleaning up Wednesday after brief but strong storms rolled through Lorain County Tuesday afternoon. Investigators are determining if the weather played a part in a fire and roof collapse at the Grafton Correctional Institution complex.

Snapped tree limbs, debris and closed roads remained Wednesday near State Route 83 in Eaton Township.

“It just kind of whipped right across here. Garbage cans and everything went flying,” recalled Jerry Schatz.

The Eaton Township resident estimated the strongest part of Tuesday’s storm only lasted about 15 minutes.

“The big wind and everything that caused all the issues went by pretty quick,” he said.

Schatz was one of approximately 1,200 Lorain County FirstEnergy customers who lost power Tuesday afternoon when the storms knocked down more than 20 utility poles, and trees damaged other power lines.

“[There were] about a half, three-quarters of a mile of downed power lines and poles actually leaning across 83,” said Grafton Fire Chief Glen Thompson. “We had to zig-zag in and out of poles and traffic to even get there.”

Navigating the storm damage was one of several challenges Thompson said his crews faced Tuesday afternoon while responding to a reported fire at the Grafton Correctional Institution complex.

“A typical fire like that size yesterday would’ve been a single department response. But it was 90+ degrees and we had to get to it from the air. So that right away turned it into a 5 or 6 department response,” Thompson explained.

He said a fire had started in an unoccupied building at the former prison farm outside the complex’s secure perimeter. The Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (DRC) said the building had been more recently used for tractor storage.

Thompson said it contained several flammable materials, including propane and oxy-acetylene. When his crew arrived, the roof was partially collapsed, and a large column of flames was shooting into the air.

“The gas main going into the building for the boilers had ruptured inside the building and it was actually blowing gas up through the roof, causing the fire,” he said.

Columbia Gas arrived on the scene to turn off the gas, and fire crews contained the flames. No injuries were reported, and the fire did not affect prison staff or inmates.

The chief said the incident is under investigation, and the department, state fire marshal, and the National Weather Service are working to determine if severe weather damaged the roof or led to the fire.

A portion of SR 83 remained closed Wednesday as utility crews worked to replace more than 20 poles. The road opened up around 9:30 p.m.

FirstEnergy said the crews had worked around the clock in 16-hour shifts Tuesday into Wednesday to restore power. The majority of customers were restored late Tuesday.

Thompson anticipated repair work would be happening through Wednesday.

“The lingering issues today are all the downed poles. There’s houses out there and if we have to get to the prison, we’ll have the same problems again today,” he said. “So let’s hope for a nice, quiet day if these afternoon storms pop up again.”

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