The blaze that destroyed a building and damaged others in downtown Westminster Sunday started in a store where the owner failed to follow safety orders from fire inspectors, according to the Maryland state fire marshal.
In a prepared statement issued yesterday, the fire marshal's office said the fire was an accident and that it started in Stem's Used Furniture Store when flammable chemicals the owner was using to strip or refinish wood furniture burst into flames.
According to the report, fire inspectors visited the store in April to check electrical appliances and exits, and again in July to inspect for fire safety. On July 23, they ordered the owner, William J. Stem, to stop using the back of his workshop for stripping and refinishing until he made five improvements to comply with the state fire code.
Based on the investigation of the fire, the fire marshal concluded that Stem had disobeyed the order.
But Stem, of Manchester, said last night that he had complied on all five counts within two days of the order. Fire inspectors had told him to install a more fire-resistant door to the work area, to seal cracks, to use only electrical equipment that couldn't ignite an explosion, to install a mechanical vent to blow vapors outside and to store flammable liquids in approved storage.
"I had done all of that," Stem said, adding as evidence that after the fire, "every room in the building is gone except for that room."
Deputy Chief State Fire Marshal Bob Thomas declined to elaborate on the findings of the investigation. When told of Stem's claims, Thomas reiterated: "What we found was the facility was not up to code."
Thomas said he had asked the state attorney general to look into whether Stem could be prosecuted in connection with the blaze. The fire inspectors had not returned to Stem's since the July inspection to check for compliance, Thomas said, adding: "It's hard to say when we would have gotten back there."
Stem said Sunday that the fire started near his feet while he was stripping paint from an oak dresser in his shop. The flames quickly became a fireball, and he and his family cleared out. The seven-alarm blaze destroyed the building that housed Stem's and Heagy's Sport Shop and damaged the roofs, and caused smoke and water damage to other buildings on the block.
Thomas estimated property losses of at least $500,000.
Stem speculated that an electrical short might have set off the chemical fumes. The fire marshal's office didn't reach a conclusion on that.
"The exact ignition sources remains unknown," the report said, "although there were several possible sources, including electric motors that were found in the area of origin."
Carroll County officials condemned the building at 16 W. Main St. yesterday, as insurance adjusters gathered bids on the job of demolishing the charred shell that remained.
Meanwhile, businesses and apartment dwellers along the block were getting their lives back in order.
After pumping out 6 inches of water, and running all glassware through the dishwasher, Champs opened its bar for drinks. The restaurant will open tomorrow, said Champs manager David Johansson.
Nearby, the Flower Box florist had relocated temporarily to the quarters of a friendly competitor.
Eileen Gist, owner of the Stewart Dutterer Flower Shop, said she had given over a room and telephone line in her shop to Flower Box employees for as long as it takes them to find a new location or restore the old one.
Many of the residents who had fled 19 apartments over the businesses along the block had moved back in.
Amy Gaver, staff specialist at the Red Cross office in Westminster, was looking for more apartment residents to refer to shelter or to supply with vouchers for replacing refrigerated food that spoiled when electricity was shut off. But most were at work or making their own arrangements, she said.
Donna Barrett, who lived in an apartment on the block with her two children, ages 6 years and 11 months, planned to accept the Red Cross offer of a food voucher and a night in a shelter.
Barrett expects to move back to her apartment as soon as she can clean and air it out.
The future was less certain for the owners of Stem's and Heagy's.
Heagy's Sport Shop also is one of five game check stations in Carroll County, where hunters would register their deer kills for the state Department of Natural Resources.
Marilyn Mause, DNR's wildlife biologist for Carroll, Harford and Baltimore counties, said she had received several calls from people wanting to start a check station in place of the one at Heagy's. But Mause said she would give the owner a chance to set up shop elsewhere in case he wants to continue the check station himself in Westminster.
As the last wisps of the smoke escaped through the now-roofless building, Stem was staring at $50,000 and $100,000 worth of furniture burnt to charcoal.
"I still owed for some of this stuff," he said.
Stem was planning to start all over, doing business out of a trailer.