Looking back at the day that changed Swannanoa forever

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News

Labor Day is a time for the vast majority of the country to enjoy a day off of work and prepare to say goodbye to summer. Although the Swannanoa Valley is no different, Sept. 3, 2018 carried additional significance as the 15th anniversary of the day the face of the community changed forever.

That date fell on a Wednesday in 2003 and before the sun could illuminate the sky, the flames in the building that served as home to Beacon Manufacturing for nearly eight decades did.

A 2003 photo of a smoldering Beacon Manufacturing building shows the damage done by the fire to the massive structure in Swannanoa.

The massive building, which sat just across Whitson Avenue from the Swannanoa Volunteer Fire Department in what is now a vacant lot, had been empty since Beacon closed its doors for good in April of 2002. The building, however, held a special significance, according to the department’s chief Anthony Penland, who was the incident commander for the largest fire in the history of Buncombe County.

“At 4:50 a.m. the tones went off and I responded from my house,” he said, recounting the morning. “When I came up South Avenue a fireball shot up the road out the fifth-floor window.”

Arson investigator Buddy Thompson. left, and Swannanoa fire chief Anthony Penland discuss knocking down an unstable wall before investigators can examine the area of the Beacon building in 2003.

As the sirens pierced the night sky, firefighters in the station across the street could see an eerie red glow through the glass bay doors.

Vickie Wacaser McLaughlin represents the third out of four generations of her family to work at Beacon. Her grandfather worked there for years and her father, Freddie Wacaser, was also among the over 2,000 people employed by the plant at the height of its productivity. Amanda McLaughlin, Vickie’s daughter, was a Beacon employee as well.

“It was our livelihood,” said Vickie, who worked for the manufacturer until the day it closed.

Vickie Wacaser, left, Amanda McLaughlin, and Freddie Wacaser stand in front of the Beacon Manufacturing building when it burned in 2003. Four generations of Vickie's family, including her grandfather, worked at the plant before it closed in 2002.

The morning of the fire is one that’s etched into her memory forever, she said. As Vickie prepared to leave for her job at Owen Manufacturing, which Charles D. Owen, Jr. founded in 1970 after his family sold Beacon to National Distillers the previous year, she could see the flames through the windows of the massive building.

Although the plant had been closed and the building empty for around 18 months, the fire was “devastating to the community,” she said.

“It was a big loss because I’d always had hopes it would open back up,” said Vickie, who still lives in Beacon Village, which was constructed by the company to house employees. “When it burned down there was just hopelessness.”

An aerial photo of the Beacon Manufacturing plant shows the building burning on Sept. 3, 2003.

That morning, unable to leave her house because of the massive blaze, Vickie cried as she watched the old Beacon building burn.

Penland had contacted his father Jerry Penland, the longtime fire marshall at Beacon, on his way to the fire. The weight of the moment was undeniable.

“To me, because I grew up here, I know how much history went up in that fire,” Penland said. “My father worked there for 22 years and I worked there for a couple of months when I was young and I have a lot of respect for the people who worked at that factory. That place did a lot of good for this community.”

Penland, who became the chief in 2001, was well aware of the potential for a fire at the building. His department had already done a hazard assessment of the site after Beacon closed.

“I don’t know when that plant was built in New Bedford, Massachusetts,” Penland said. “But the floors were wood and just caked with lint and oil.”

Originally constructed in 1904, Beacon thrived in the early 20th century and the building expanded. The existing structure was moved to the site in Swannanoa, beginning in 1923, under the guidance of Charles D. Owen, who oversaw the operation’s move south. 

Penland had already decided that if the building, which had fallen into disrepair since it was shuttered, were to ever catch on fire it would be too risky for his firefighters to enter.

“Throughout the county everybody knew that if that thing caught on fire it was going to burn,” he said. “There was no way we’d send someone in there. When we responded some of it was already collapsing.”

A firefighter takes cover in front of the Swannanoa Fire Department as an exterior wall of the Beacon Manufacturing building collapses during the 2003 fire, scattering bricks for blocks.

Instead the 367 firefighters from 32 departments, as far away as Rutherford County, fought to keep the massive blaze contained and protect the nearby homes and structures.

“We thought our building would be gone,” Penland said from inside his office that sits feet away from where the fire, which was later determined to be an act of arson, began.

Penland would later hear reports from as far away as Ridgecrest of people finding debris from Beacon on their property. As the intense heat destroyed the integrity of the 100-year-old walls they came tumbling down, spreading bricks for blocks around Swannanoa.

Well after the scene was secured, community members were coming to a pile of bricks to collect a piece of their beloved Beacon. This moment was particularly poignant to Rebecca Williams, who walked from Grovemont to the fire with her husband Jerry Pope that morning.

Williams and Pope had written plays about Beacon for "Way Back When: Folktales of Black Mountain and the Swannanoa Valley,” which they presented at the Black Mountain Center for the Arts from 2001-2006.

One of three signs recovered from Beacon Manufacturing after the 2003 fire hangs in the Swannanoa Fire Department.

“We had a sense of how important it was to the community,” Williams said. “But probably not in the way we’ve come to understand.”

Although she didn’t realize it that morning, the fire would inspire her to make the documentary “Blanket Town: The Rise and Fall of An American Mill Town,” which her and Pope began working on in 2008. The film is still in production and contributions can be made at   

Williams continued to be drawn back to the scene as the million-square-foot building burned over the next few days.

“It was like a sacred site,” she said.

What Williams would find out as she interviewed 89 people who worked for Beacon while making her film, is that the plant was like family.

“It was the thing that kind of held the community together,” she said. “There was a loss of a sense of community and relationships because people were working beside other people for 20-30 years, and that place was the linchpin.”

A crane lowers a memorial honoring Beacon employees who served in World Wars I and II on a slab at the Swannanoa Fire Department. The memorial was among the only things left standing after a massive fire destroyed the building in 2003.

While working on the documentary, which Williams intends to pass off to a finishing editor in the fall, she heard fond memories from former Beacon employees about their time with the company.

“The phrase that people used all of the time was ‘it was like a family,’” Williams said. “I think the people really felt like they had each other’s back.”

That bond between former Beacon employees made losing the building particularly tough, Vickie said.

“It was like losing our whole town,” she said. “We were a Beacon blanket town.”

The fire left mostly rubble by the time it was distinguished. Standing along Whitson Avenue was a large memorial, with the names of Beacon employees who served in World War I and II. It was moved across the street to the Swannanoa Fire Rescue station where it still stands.

Inside the department’s copy room is one of three signs salvaged from the fire.

“I don’t know if that signs worth anything or not,” Penland said. “But I know how important seeing that Beacon name is to this community.”

Deputy chief Larry Pierson was the operations chief during the fire and remembers the exact moment when the reality of the fate of the building, which cast a shadow over much of downtown Swannanoa, sank in for him.

Swannanoa Fire Department Deputy Chief Larry Pierson (r) and Captain Dennis Gregory look up at new smoke coming from a building at Beacon Manufacturing in 2003. The map they are using tells them which fire departments, and how many firefighters they have at work. The historic blanket plant was destroyed by fire Wednesday.

“I had a few minutes one morning and stepped out back,” he said. “We used to always say ‘Beacon’s still standing’ when coming back from a call. I looked over and saw the sunrise, and thought ‘we won’t ever be saying that again.’”