COLUMBIA, Tenn. (WKRN) — A Columbia man is behind bars, accused of trying to burn down the Kroger on Nashville Highway in Columbia.
It happened early Sunday morning, around 1:30 a.m.
When fire crews arrived, flames could be seen shooting up the front of the building.
According to investigators, the store was closed, but six employees were inside stocking shelves and cleaning up.
A man working across the street at the water plant saw the flames and made the call to 911.
Caller: “I’m across the street from Kroger on Nashville highway, and there’s a fire over there. It’s almost as tall as the building now. It’s almost like a massive campfire, like a bonfire.”
Columbia police quickly arrived and found arson suspect Jeffrey Lee Mealer parked outside the burning store.
Investigators say the 53-year-old Columbia man was intoxicated and in possession of meth.
Meanwhile, Columbia fire crews quickly responded to the blaze.
Photos obtained by News 2 show fire damage to more than a dozen shopping carts parked in the cart corral. The plastic was melted and the metal was burned.
By Monday morning, the outside of the store was singed all the way to the roof and the awnings were burned.
The front doors on the right side of the store are now boarded up, and there is yellow caution tape urging shoppers to enter on the south side of the building.
According to Assistant Chief Donnie Knoepfel of Columbia Fire & Rescue, as the flames began to enter the store through a window that broke, two fire sprinklers automatically activated, which helped suppress the flames prior to firefighters arriving.
“Our primary concern is safety of the people inside and the safety of our people,” Knoepfel said.
According to a Columbia police report, prior to the fire starting, store employees said Jeffrey Mealer was outside the store banging on the doors, claiming his wife works there.
When store employees informed him she doesn’t work there, they told investigators the 53-year-old became “very agitated” and left. A short time later the fire began.
According to the report, Mealer denied setting the fire multiple times. Once he was arrested, he refused to talk to the police.
Investigators have not released a possible motive for the arson.
Columbia police confirmed they have surveillance video from cameras located over the entrances.
“It’s aggravating. We are here to protect people and answer that call when we receive it. Obviously, when it’s a set fire, it poses danger to the public and to the firefighters,” Knoepfel said.
Mealer is charged with aggravated arson and six counts of reckless endangerment with a weapon — the weapon being fire. The six counts are for each person inside the store.
Mealer is also charged with meth possession.
Kroger is currently open.
Kroger had no comment except to say they are thankful that no Kroger employees were harmed.
Mealer is in the Maury County jail under a $205,000 bond