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Fire at For Bare Feet, UPDATED: 6:30 p.m.
Updated on: 09.10.11

HELMSBURG -- Multiple fire departments are on scene at For Bare Feet in Helmsburg. They are responding to a fire that was called in around 1:30 p.m. this afternoon.

The Democrat's Sara Clifford is on scene, and reports that the roof is on fire and heavy black smoke is visible.

A crowd of onlookers has begun to assemble at the scene.

Responders from several Brown County departments and Bargersville are responding to the fire at For Bare Feet in Helmsburg.

2:35 p.m. Clifford reports that fire alarms continue to sound inside the burning building. She says responders are cutting through a loading dock door and that the roof continues to erode.

Several local departments, including Nashville, Jackson, Fruitdale, Cordry Sweetwater, Morgantown and Nineveh are working to control the fire.

2:57 p.m. Bargersville's ladder truck has arrived at the scene and is spraying water into the center of the affected building.

3:20 p.m. The fire appears to be contained, Clifford reports.

The middle of the approximately 10,000-square foot machine room has collapsed, she said. This is where the fire was burning through the roof. The shipping and warehousing areas are not on fire, and neither is the attached corporate office building.

Jackson Township firefighter Jeff McCabe said the fire appears to have started at an air compressor near the back of the building. The fire spread to the roof from there and throughout the machine area, which contains fabric and thread and other flammable materials, he explained. The machine building is constructed of wooden posts and metal siding, much like a pole barn.

There were employees on duty when Jackson Fire Chief Glenn Elmore arrived, but they were outside of the building.

Firefighters from Jackson and other departments have a plan for how to operate in case of fire, McCabe said. For Bare Feet is the largest manufacturing facility in Brown County, and is located less than a mile from the Jackson Township fire station. 

Don Knapp was just showing his grandchildren the new building portion under construction at For Bare Feet when he spotted the flames.

Knapp lives next door.  He, with the two youngsters in tow, had driven his golf cart up to the site near the upper lot there.

“I saw flames coming out of the roof,” he said. “I hollered at my neighbor, and he called it in.”

Nancy Ferguson got there a little later.

As she stood watching the smoke billow and firefighters work, Ferguson explained how she and her husband Sam, the superintendent of that building project, were sitting at home in Monroe County when they got a call from a friend in Nashville about the fire.

They came right over.

The construction project, to add more warehousing space, is being headed up by Builders Associates.

3:52 p.m. Alan Zellmer stood outside by his truck, a coffee thermos in hand, as he watched the fire. He's worked maintenance at For Bare Feet for 13 years. He's also married to Mandy Zellmer, For Bare Feet's president of operations and daughter of company founder Sharon Rivenbark.

"We just got this new building started, and then something like this happens," he said quietly.

The new portion is a 14,000-square foot addition attached to one of the shipping warehouses and the machine building.

Because of the fire, it may have to become the new knitting room, Sam Ferguson said.

Most of the knitting equipment, though, they explained, was in the machine building that's burning.

According to Zellmer, all parts of the interconnected buildings have drywall fire barriers rated to at least one hour. The new addition was being built with a three-hour fire rated concrete block.

Ferguson's crew had just finished laying the last of that block yesterday.

4:20 p.m. Jason Ramey with Bargersville reports that about 100 firefighters from Johnson, Morgan and Brown counties are working on site, says Clifford.

According to Ramey, no one has been injured. Shortly after he arrived, there was a mayday put out for a firefighting team in distress, but they had just not reported back to their departments. They were OK.

Ramey also confirmed that the roof on the machine building has collapsed and says that all contents there appear to be destroyed. He had not spoken to any employees to determine the exact cause, but Brown County fire officials will be investigating, he said.

4:30 p.m. Below are some photos from the scene, by Sara Clifford.

6:25 p.m. Company founder Sharon Rivenbark stood outside her company's corporate headquarters building, on the opposite side from where more than a dozen fire trucks had gathered. She was surrounded by family, many of whom work at the factory.

The building is well insured, she said, and the company has plans for what to do in case of disaster. But those plans didn't include a disaster quite as big as this. She was planning to meet with her management team for the rest of the day and all day tomorrow to figure out a plan. She hadn't been inside the destroyed part of the building yet, but said she was 95 percent sure all her knitting equipment was ruined.

It will take some time to get new machines, but the "brain" behind that computerized equipment is safe, she said. When she arrived on scene, she went into the building, through the smoke, to retrieve it.

Her estimated 140 employees can rest assured that they will be paid while the company gets back on its feet.

"Oh, we will be, no doubt about that," she said about the company's future. "Absolutely no doubt."

About For Bare Feet:

For Bare Feet is one of Brown County’s largest employers. In fall 2010, company officials reported between 130 and 150 employees at the Helmsburg facility.

Sharon Rivenbark founded the company in 1984, after learning that her 16-year-old son Tim was seriously ill and destined to become mentally disabled.

At the time, she was a fifth-grade teacher at Sprunica Elmentary.

After a doctor recommended some kind of occupational therapy for Tim, Rivenbark began exploring her options. She settled on socks.

With a $1,200 loan from her parents, she bought an old Banner knitting machine and she and Tim learned how to run it.

They rented a shop in Nashville’s Antique Alley and started selling striped tube socks. Business went well, but they soon found that customers wanted more.

Demand for the socks began to outpace the antique knitting machine’s capabilities after about four months in business. Rivenbark found another company to agree to produce her designs and keep the sock shop stocked.

Rivenbark had taken a one-year leave of absence from her teaching position. When that time was up, the district refused her another.

She had to choose between teaching and the sock shop, and she chose to stay with the socks and her son.

Tim died in January 1987 after a Christmas Day emergency surgery.

Shortly after that, the company that had been helping keep the shop stocked said it didn't want to make socks anymore.

“At that point, it was like, ‘This business has got to succeed. It’s what we have left of Tim and there’s no way it’s ever going to go away,’” Rivenbark told The Democrat last year.

She bought more machines and began expanding.

For Bare Feet was licensed to make socks with Indiana University’s logo for the IU bookstore. Sororities and fraternities began asking for socks with Greek letters.

From there, the company grew.

A sports division of For Bare Feet makes socks, headbands and wristbands for players in the NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL, as well as sports outlets like Foot Locker and Finish line.

A novelty division sells designs worldwide, to places like the San Diego Zoo and Yosemite National Park.

A separate retail division has two stores in Nashville and additional stores in Colorado, Michigan, Tennessee and Arkansas.

“…We make millions and millions of socks a year,” Rivenbark said last year.

About the Helmsburg site:

Rivenbark began renting the old Helmsburg High School building from former owner Kenneth Fleener when she started the company. The brick building was home to the knitting and boarding machines and the company's offices.

Later on, Rivenbark bought that building, and the nearby original Helmsburg Elementary school building that now houses their corporate offices.  Other buildings, like the one that burned today, were added as the company grew.

This will be updated. Check back here periodically for more information.

-- Megan O'Bryan, Brown County Democrat, compiled this story with input from Sara Clifford

See Full List »

John Jacob 'Jack' Gambold, Jr., 91
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  Daughter of Jason and Krystal Dufek

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