From the still smoking ruins of his used furniture business, Bill Stem pulled the ornately carved leg of a Victorian marble table for which he had been offered $8,000. Stem said he had held out for a higher price.
Now the wooden leg might sell for parts, he said today, surveying the charcoal that remains from a store he had stuffed with inventory.
"That's one of the things that made the fire so hot," he said. "This stuff is like gasoline."
Carroll County officials today condemned the building at 16 W. Main St. that was destroyed in a six-alarm fire that lit up the Westminster night sky yesterday and drew firefight
ers as far away as Adams County, Pa. The building is to be razed within two or three days after insurance adjusters finish gathering bids for the demolition, Westminster Assistant Fire Chief Robert Schultz said.
The fire began at 4:51 p.m. yesterday and caused at least $500,000 damage, said Bob Thomas, deputy chief state fire marshal. About 150 firefighters from 21 departments responded, said. The investigation into how it started was still going on today.
Next door to Stem's, men in hunting camouflage were busy salvaging guns and ammo from a corner of Heagy's Sport Shop that firefighters managed to spare. Smoke and water caused damage to other buildings along the same block in downtown Westminster.
Stem was unsure why fire suddenly flashed at his feet yesterday afternoon as he was stripping paint from an oak dresser. He said he wasn't smoking at the time, and was unaware of any flame in the room. Maybe an electrical short ignited the fumes, he said. He didn't stick around to find out.
He 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 recalled.
He emptied one canister of extinguisher anyway, and then ran to the front of the store to get his wife and children. They --ed out onto Main Street, the fire spreading behind them as if it were devouring a pile of dry leaves.
Thin clouds of smoke were still hissing up from the basement this morning as firefighters had dropped a nozzle down through the heap of collapsed floors to sprinkle sizzling patches below.
Thomas said he expected to talk with Stem again today about the fire and the operation of the stripping room.
"We know where the fire began, and we expect to know by late today or tomorrow how the fire started," Thomas said. "We'll also check to see if any fumes from stripping chemicals may have been ignited by a stove or other source of heat."
The fire was brilliant; flames shot out of the first and second story windows. Firefighters feared that it might spread to neighboring buildings. And inside Stem's were the chemicals he used for stripping furniture, and inside Heagy's was ammunition for rifles and guns.
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 from Pennsylvania delivered water in tankers blaring sirens, flashing lights and attracting hundreds of spectators.
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 possibly smoke 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 firefighters. The other apartments were above White's and Champs. They had no electricity overnight.
Bill J. Frey, manager of the Flower Box, said flooding in his basement had destroyed supplies stored there. He and seven other employees were just closing the store after a special open house to launch holiday season flower purchases when the fire started.
As he lingered and watched through most of the night, "all I could think about was, there goes our livelihood," Frey said.
But by this morning, helping hands had already extended the life of the business. The Flower Box will relocate temporarily with XTC another florist, Dutterer Flower Shop, Frey said, and other businesses along Main Street had offered to help with the move.
Thomas, the deputy fire marshal, said no residents were injured. 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.
He would not speculate about the cause of the fire. He had talked to Stem, he said, and planned to talk to him again. Those interviews are part of the investigation by the state fire marshal's office, he said.
The fire did start in the rear of Stem's, he said. That was where Stem had his stripping room.