ELIZABETHTOWN, KY (WAVE) - A burning cigarette tossed into freshly-placed mulch outside of an Elizabethtown McDonald's is believed to be the cause of the fire that destroyed the building Thursday afternoon.
It happened around 5 p.m. Thursday and within minutes the fast-food restaurant located along Dixie Highway near the Towne Mall was engulfed in flames.
With Thursday's heat and high winds, fire investigators say it was the perfect storm of circumstances. Crews remained on the scene for much of Friday, watching for hotspots before turning the building over to its owner.
It took nearly three hours to get the fire under control Thursday and investigators now believe it all started with a d ropped cigarette.
"The cigarette ignited the mulch, which burned up under one of the columns that, even though it had a brick exterior, underneath there was a void space," Elizabethtown Fire Deputy Chief Everett Roberts said Friday.
Roberts said after a customer noticed the mulch on fire, employees attempted to put it out.
"We grabbed the fire extinguisher but it wasn't doing anything for it," McDonald's employee Tracey Chambers said.
Crews from all over Hardin County rushed to the scene.
"The fire traveled straight up from the mulch bed right up into the ceiling and spread out from there," Roberts said.
Within 15 minutes, the flames spread and all firefighters were forced to evacuate the building.
"We soon had extreme fire conditions to the point where we even experienced what we believe we did have a backdraft situation at one point," Roberts said.
One firefighter was taken to the hospital for heat exhaustion, but later released.
McDonald's will conduct its own investigation.
Restaurant owner and operator Tom Burrell released this statement: "The safety of our guests and crew is our primary concern at this time. We have confirmed that all guests and employees are safe and no injuries occurred during the fire. We are working with local fire officials and law enforcement to conduct a full investigation."
Burrell said nearly 60 employees have been transferred to six different locations. He said he plans to rebuild in the same spot.
Roberts said he hopes people will see what happened here and be mindful and properly dispose of their burning cigarettes.
"For those of us that do like landscaping and have mulch, keep in mind you are placing a combustible, easily flammable-type material up against your home and business, and be aware that could be a potential problem," Roberts said.
No charges are expected to be filed. Fire officials believe this was a careless accident, one people can learn from.