Fire At Cash House Appears Accidental

This appeared in The Tennessean - April 12, 2007

The rubble of Johnny Cash's longtime home smoldered in the rain Wednesday as investigators searched for the cause of the blaze.

There were 14 workers in and around the lakeside home on Caudill Drive when the fire began early Tuesday afternoon, according to the contractor — plumbers, heating and air conditioning technicians, electrical contractors, painters and carpenters.

The home was full of fumes from wood preservatives and other flammable chemicals. At some point, something — a blowtorch, a cigarette lighter, an electrical spark or even static electricity from someone walking across a carpet — set off a fast-moving fire that engulfed the historic home within minutes.

"The actual ignition source almost doesn't matter," said Hendersonville Fire Chief Jamie Steele, whose crews stayed at the fire scene around the clock as rain drenched the neighborhood around Old Hickory Lake without extinguishing the fire. "Any time you have possibly flammable vapors in an enclosed space, it's just waiting — there are dozens of things that could have created the spark."

Steele expects to be able to issue a final report on the cause of the blaze by late today. His inspectors have turned over their preliminary findings to private investigators for the insurance companies.

Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash shared the home until their deaths in 2003. Former Bee Gees singer Barry Gibb bought the seven-bedroom house last year and was restoring it.

Once the fire dies out, crews will pull down the last parts of the house standing, the teetering stone chimneys. Only then will it be safe to go on the property and take a closer look at the charred wreckage.

Family asks for prayers

Joanne Cash, Johnny Cash's sister, surveyed the wreckage sadly from the roadside Wednesday morning. A parade of cars passed by her in both directions as drivers slowed to stare. Many snapped pictures.

Well-wishers have flooded the Cash family with calls and e-mails and offers to set up flower memorials at the home. Joanne Cash asked for prayers instead — prayers for herself and her brother Tommy and for the Cash children, who have been devastated by the loss of their family's former home.

"We are going to keep singing," she said. "We are going to keep on going. We are going to leave all the questions people have about what happened to God."

Mike Elmore, president of Cardinal Construction Service, said his work crews were nearly finished with the restoration when disaster struck.

"We had promised them they would be in by July 4. We probably would have beat that (deadline) by over a month," Elmore said.

Elmore said the only furniture in the building was a Gibb family bedroom set — not Johnny Cash's famous round bed that Gibb had also purchased for the home.

Elmore said he has interviewed his workers who were at the site Tuesday and is "99 percent certain that this was simply an accidental thing."

All of his workers were experienced, he said. All escaped the blaze uninjured, although one man's shirt burned off his back.

"These were all good, honest hardworking people," he said.

No serious injuries in fire

One firefighter suffered minor injuries during the fire and was treated at the scene. Steele expects him to return to duty today.

"We're very grateful that no one was hurt," he said. "The fire moved so fast, the fact that there were no injuries was a huge blessing."

In addition to the fire crews and investigators, local police and sheriff's deputies have been patrolling to deter looters, Steele said.

By Jennifer Brooks

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