6-alarm fire in Westminster linked to small explosion in furniture store

November 18, 1991|By Ed McDonough and Greg Tasker

WESTMINSTER -- After firefighters struggled with water supply problems for more than five hours, they finally tamed a six-alarm fire last night that burned out one building on Westminster's Main Street and heavily damaged another.

The fire, which produced shooting flames and dense, billowing smoke visible for at least two miles, apparently started with a small explosion in Stem's Used Furniture & Appliances in the back of 16 W. Main Street.

The flames quickly spread to Heagy's Sports Shop in the front and to a neighboring flower shop, the Flower Box, said Cpl. Rick May, a spokesman for the Westminster Police Department.

Firefighters from four counties -- one of them in Pennsylvania -- brought the blaze under control shortly past 10 p.m. Three people received minor injuries -- all firefighters released after treatment at Carroll County General Hospital.

Corporal May and firefighters said the three-story buildings at 16 and 14 West Main Street received extensive damage, from basement to roof.

Initial estimates indicated damage of "at least $500,000," said Bob Thomas, a spokesman for the state fire marshal. Fire officials and building inspectors were making plans to demolish the building at 16 W. Main St. early this morning.

Building owners and fire officials said residents of 19 apartment units were forced out of their residences, some because of damage and others because electricity was turned off for the night. One apartment above the Flower Box was heavily damaged, while 10 others above White's Bicycles and White's Emporium at 10 W. Main St. received minor smoke and water damage.

William Stem, the owner of Stem's Used Furniture & Appliances, said he was working in the rear of the store, stripping an oak dresser, when he suddenly saw flames shooting around his feet. The flamesspread around the dresser in what he described as a fireproof room.

"I ran to the front of the store and told my wife to call 911 and get the kids out," Mr. Stem said. "I ran back with a fire extinguisher, but by the time I got back there, the flames were too much." The family escaped unharmed. Mr. Stem said there were no customers in the store.

"Within 20 minutes it was so hot in there that stuff on the window was melting," he said.

Friends took the couple's four children, ages 13 months to 15 years, to their Manchester home while Mr. Stem and his wife, Janice Sevier, remained on the scene throughout the evening.

"Everyone has been real nice," Ms. Sevier said. "My 9-year-old losther coat in the fire and some woman gave her another one. Erol's [video store] let us stay warm in there until someone came to pick the kids up."

The fire was reported at 4:51 p.m., and subsequent alarms followed about every half-hour over the next two hours. Much of the equipment was brought in to shuttle water from distant sources because of low water pressure at nearby hydrants, said Corporal May.

Sam R. Leppo, the Westminster police chief, said water was hauled in from the city's Cranberry Resevoir, about two miles away.

"We had a water problem to begin with [because of the drought], Corporal May said. "We're still under water restrictions."

Patrons at Champs, a restaurant and bar several doors away, were evacuated as the fire spread, the corporal said. Police and fire officials roped off a block-long section of Main Street as about 21 pieces of fire equipment and 150 firefighters from Carroll, Frederick and Baltimore counties and Adams County, Pa., battled the blaze.

The cause was under investigation by the state fire marshal's office.

Corporal May said firefighters and police were concerned because of some of the chemicals that may have been stored in the furniture store, which had a refinishing operation, and because of ammunition kept at the sporting goods store.

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