State fire investigators today were to resume probing for the cause of a six-alarm fire that burned out several businesses in downtown Westminster and caused more than $500,000 in damage, said a spokesman for the state fire marshal's office.
Deputy State Fire Marshal Bob Thomas said the fire began about p.m. yesterday in the back of a used-furniture shop on Main Street while its owner was stripping a piece of old furniture. The fire quickly spread to an adjoining building, Thomas said.
"We know where the fire began," he said, "and we expect to know by late today or tomorrow how the fire started."
Thomas said he expected to talk with the owner of the furniture store again today in order to learn what he was using to strip the furniture and if he was smoking near any flammable materials.
"We'll also check to see if any fumes from stripping chemicals may have been ignited by a stove or other source of heat," said Thomas.
Fire and police officials and county building inspectors today were to examine the damaged buildings in an effort to determine if they should be demolished.
Westminster police said should demolition crews begin tearing the buildings down, traffic along Main Street would be detoured until the work is completed.
Bill Stem, the owner of Stem's Used Furniture, was stripping paint from an oak dresser when fire flashed at his feet. He said later the fire may have come from the pump supplying him stripping compound.
Stem scrambled out of the stripping room, grabbed a fire extinguisher and turned back toward the room.
"But it was just a big ball of flame," Stem said.
He emptied one canister of extinquisher anyway, and then ran to the front of the store to get his wife, Janice, and four of his six children. They --ed out onto Main Street, the fire spreading behind them as if it were devouring a pile of dry leaves.
The six-alarm fire caused at least $500,000 damage, said Thomas. He said about 150 firefighters from 21 departments descended on the blazing brick building at 16 W. Main St. in the heart of Westminster.
The fire was brilliant; flames shot out of the first- and second-story windows. Firefighters feared that it might spread to neighboring buildings. Inside Stem's were the chemicals he used for stripping furniture. And inside Heagy's Sports Shop, which shares the building with Stem's, was ammunition for firearms.
But the main reason for so many fire engines was a shortage of water in Westminster, Thomas said. The recent drought had diminished the city's supply, and engines from departments in Carroll and Baltimore counties and Adams County, Pa., delivered water in tankers.
The fire also caused extensive damage to the Flower Box, a florist at 14 W. Main St., minor damage to White's bicycle shop and antique store at 10 W. Main St., and smoke and water damage to Champs, a bar and restaurant at 4 W. Main St. Champs is on the corner of Railroad Avenue, the central intersection in downtown Westminster.
Residents from 19 apartments had to be evacuated. One apartment above the Flower Box was badly damaged, according to fire fighters. The other apartments were above White's and Champs. They had no electricity overnight.
No residents were injured, Thomas said. By early today, Red Cross workers had located only two of the families. The others must have found friends or relatives to stay with, the workers said.
Three firefighters suffered injuries that Thomas described as minor -- smoke inhalation, a cut hand and a smashed finger.
Standing on Railroad Avenue in the dark, shivering in the damp cold, Stem said the store was getting ready to close when the fire started.
Stem, 38, has a gray beard and wild gray hair. He said he got laid off from his job as a heavy-equipment operator in November 1990, and two months later sank his savings into the used-furniture business.
It wasn't going too well, said Stem, who lives with his family in Manchester. People stung by the economy called every day to sell him their furniture, he said, but because of the rough times, few people could afford furniture, even second-hand. So he mainly sold wholesale.
Destroyed in the fire were two floors, 10,000 square feet, of furniture Stem had bought for between $50,000 and $100,000, he said. His was probably the largest used-furniture store in the county, he said.