Crime & Courts

Fire at Harbison Walmart believed to be arson, suspects sought, Columbia police say

Three “persons of interest” are being sought after an early morning fire caused millions of dollars in damages at the Walmart on Harbison Boulevard, the Columbia Police Department said.

Investigators believe “the fire was intentionally set in a food aisle” Tuesday at about 3:30 a.m., calling the incident “arson,” according to a statement from the police.

“There was no apparent reason for the fire to start where it did,” Columbia Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins said in an interview with The State.

Police described the “persons of interest” as two men and one woman who arrived at the store in an older, green SUV, according to the statement. The car could be a Chevy Tahoe or a Suburban, police said in the statement.

The fire is believed to be “an isolated incident,” police spokeswoman Jennifer Timmons said to The State.

A few employees and customers were inside the building at the time of the fire, but no one was injured, according to the statement.

The Columbia Fire Department tweeted the blaze “caused millions in damages to inventory inside.”

It was estimated to be at least $3 million in damage, because of all the heavy smoke and water damage caused by the sprinklers activating, Jenkins told The State.

“They are going to have to throw away and discard food, produce and vegetables. Because it is a Walmart Supercenter, they have quite a lot of inventory,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins said when crews arrived, they found heavy smoke inside the store and flames in one of the food aisles. The fire was extinguished in less than 30 minutes, according to Jenkins.

The Walmart was closed Tuesday, and Jenkins expected it could be out of business for days as crews will clean up water and remove damaged goods.

Walmart apologized for closing, and will announce when it will reopen on the store’s Facebook page.

Investigators are reviewing surveillance video of the fire, according to the statement.

Anyone with information is asked to call CrimeStoppers at 888-CRIME-SC or submit an online tip.

Cellphone video captures smoke covering the produce aisle and fire alarms blaring inside the Garners Ferry Rd. Walmart store on Thursday night of Mar. 15, 2018.

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Emily Bohatch helps cover South Carolina’s government for The State. She also updates The State’s databases. Her accomplishments include winning a Green Eyeshade award in Disaster Reporting in 2018 for her teamwork reporting on Hurricane Irma. She has a degree in Journalism with a minor in Spanish from Ohio University’s E. W. Scripps School of Journalism.
Noah Feit is a Real Time reporter with The State and McClatchy Carolinas Regional Team. The award-winning journalist has worked for multiple newspapers since starting his career in 1999.