Did An Illegal Chop Shop Cause The $2 Million Classic Car Shop Fire? [UPDATE]

Jalopnik has learned some new details on what may have caused the five-alarm warehouse blaze in Central Massachusetts Thursday night that destroyed an auto restoration garage and multiple classic cars inside.

Nick Schiappa, who is friends with the owners of Werke Classic Coach in Charlton, said this morning that they and other tenants in the warehouse complex had repeatedly complained to authorities about an illegal chop shop being operated there by immigrants from Ghana.

Schiappa said his friend, the son of the garage's owner, heard an explosion "when the guys cutting cars blew one up."

"It's a shit story," Schiappa said. "Him and his dad and a couple of other people in the complex made numerous calls to the Fire Department because these dudes from Ghana were cutting gas tanks out with torches."

The chop shop had no business license, Schiappa said, but were cutting cars and shipping the parts overseas. "Everybody called the powers that be, and they didn't do anything."

Schiappa also sent me this before-and-after photo of the garage and two Porsches that didn't make it. Very said.

Did An Illegal Chop Shop Cause The $2 Million Classic Car Shop Fire? [UPDATE]

While we're waiting to hear from the owners themselves, Schiappa's account mirrors with what others told The Worcester Telegram and Gazette newspaper.

"The issue was where they were cutting (cars), it was a container that was all wood," Werke Classic Coach owner Gary Cove told the newspaper. He said he reported it a number of times to local officials and state police. Cove said he operated out of the warehouse - a former mill located in area with no working fire hydrants, which hindered firefighters - for 20 years.

Cove told the newspaper he lost 17 cars in the fire. "Those were my life's savings. I lost millions," he said.

Schiappa didn't mince words when talking about the fire hazards at the warehouse. "The whole place was a tinderbox waiting to go," he said.

Schiappa said the Coves lost several Porsche 356s and 911s, at least two Jaguar E-Types, a 1930s Rolls-Royce and other cars. They were able to save a BMW E30 that was being restored, a Mercedes 300SL, a Shelby Cobra and a race-modified Z-car.

We're working to get more updates on this story.

UPDATE (2:00 PM EST): I just spoke with Brandon Cove, the son of the owner of Werke Classic Coach. He said the chop shop operated out of the warehouse complex for about two years. The people who worked there would tow in salvaged cars of all makes and years, which they would chop up, place in shipping containers and send to Africa. Besides an export permit, they weren't licensed to do mechanic work, Cove said.

"We complained to the building owner, the police, the town, and the building inspector," Cove said. "We were told the problem was statewide. Nothing was ever done."

Cove said that on the night of the fire, he was working on a Datsun Z race car when he heard an explosion and saw flames at one of the buildings. He said he thinks the chop shop employees dropped a halogen light onto the wooden floor they were working on, which may have sparked the fire.

Due to the lack of available water, firefighters had to go half a mile up the street to a private lake to get water, which slowed down their efforts, Cove said.

Cove said his dad's shop mostly restored vintage European cars and race cars. With the fire approaching his building, he rolled out a 289 Shelby Cobra race car and stuck it into a storage shed. They also saved a Mercedes 300 SL roadster, an E30 M3, and a 1964 Alfa Romeo.

But the losses were tremendous, Cove said. Of the 22 cars on their premises, at least a dozen were destroyed in the fire, including two Jaguar XKEs, a 1971 Mercedes 280 SL and several Porsches. They also lost countless parts and tools.

"It's unreal," Cove said of the destruction to the shop his father owned for 22 years. "My whole adult life I worked there, and I hung out there as a kid."

Luckily, Cove said the business was insured. They plan to fully rebuild and start over, he said, but first they plan to "sue everyone in sight" due to the fact that their complaints were ignored. It's not a course of action Cove relishes, but he sees this as a pretty extreme situation.

"This is huge. We lost 12 or 13 cars that are impossible to replace," he said.