WESTMINSTER -- The owner of a Main Street furniture store was restoring an antique chest in violation of a state fire marshal's order when vapors from a liquid he was using ignited, erupting into a devastating six-alarm fire Sunday, Deputy Chief Fire Marshal Bob Thomas said yesterday.
William Stem had been ordered not to restore furniture in the building, Mr. Thomas said. He said fire code violations at Mr. Stem's Used Furniture and Appliances were "serious" and "significantly contributed to the spread of the fire and, most likely, [were] its cause."
The fire, which began at 4:51 p.m. in the workroom of Mr. Stem's business, nearly destroyed it and the adjacent Heagy's Sports Shop.
No one was seriously injured, but noxious vapors forced families out of apartments above a strip of shops adjoining the brick building.
Firefighters from three counties fought the blaze that seemed to rage on for hours despite hundreds of gallons of water that strained the city's dwindling supply.
The fire is estimated to have caused $500,000 in damages, but investigators were unsure last night what sparked the flames that ignited the vapors.
"It's really aggravating that they can't find nothing else so they're putting this on me," said Mr. Stem.
"I was working on the table, and I saw the fire by my feet," he said. "It just started like that."
Mr. Stem said the lacquers and other flammable chemicals he was using were beneath a table. He said he did nothing to cause the blaze and, in fact, took precautions to fireproof his workroom.
But Mr. Thomas said investigators found no proof in the debris that the fire code violations cited earlier had been corrected.
According to records, Mr. Stem was cited twice for fire hazards in his rear workroom since he opened the business of his dreams on Jan. 1 in the back of 16 W. Main St.
He moved his workshop from the basement of his Westminster home into the rear of the store and displayed furniture once sold from a trailer in a showroom. Furniture was stored on upper and lower floors.
But unidentified complainants said the store was too cluttered.
In response, a deputy fire marshal inspected the shop on April 12 and ordered Mr. Stem to fix electrical equipment in his workshop and clear a path through the furniture for easy access through the store, Mr.Thomas said.
The deputy fire marshal noted that Mr. Stem had corrected those problems during a follow-up visit. However, the inspector returned July 23 after receiving a complaint about vapors from chemicals Mr. Stem used in his workshop.
This time, the inspector found several serious hazards in the workshop and ordered Mr. Stem to stop operating until they were corrected or face criminal charges and a fine of $100 for each day he failed to comply, Mr. Thomas said.
Mr. Stem was ordered to fireproof his workroom, seal all the wall cracks, put up a framed door between the room and the store, store all unused chemicals in a fireproof cabinet, use explosive-proof equipment and install a mechanized ventilation system to control the va- pors.
Mr. Thomas said that Mr. Stem was ordered to submit a plan of correction before beginning the work, but did not do so.
Mr. Stem said the work was completed two days after the inspection and he continued to restore furniture in the back room. "They told me what I had to do and I did it right away," Mr. Stem said.
"This was my business. I knew what I had to do to keep operating out of my shop and I can prove it -- that workroom is the only room in the whole building that's still standing," he added.
Westminster Fire Department Battalion Chief Jay Nusbaum said that the lack of water and the building's brick and frame structure made it difficult to fight the blaze, which roared on for nearly five hours. Dozens of firetrucks tapped into the city's water lines, forcing public works officials to siphon water from their emergency reservoir at Cranberry -- further reducing a reservoir that has been only half full since the drought began last spring.
"There were just too many straws pulling from the same glass," said Bill Mowell, Westminster's director of public works. Mr. Mowell said that one of the pumps was shut down when it became overloaded and contaminated with runoff water from the fire.
By daylight the fire was out but its damage was devastating. About 15 occupants remained with friends and families last night, unable to return to their smoke-filled apartments without electricity.
A number of businesses alongside the furniture store sustained water and smoke damage.
Yesterday, the curious gathered along the sidewalk to gape at the big black hole in the brick building.
Inside, puffs of smoke from the deadened fire curled around Mr. Stem's ankles as he scuffed through clumps of charred debris in search of some salvageable hidden treasure.
But it was hopeless, and after a while he stood back and stared into the cavernous hole as workers began to tear down what remained of 16 W. Main St.