Two explosions possibly caused by natural gas and a four-alarm fire completely destroyed a fabric and canvas firm in southeast Baltimore early today, putting at least 25 people out of work.
Just after 1:30 a.m., residents of the 300 block of S. Lehigh St., located about three blocks south of the warehouse, reported an explosion in the vicinity.
Shortly thereafter, the first of at least 25 pieces of fire apparatus arrived on the scene and firefighters found that the roof and east wall of the A.L. Robertson Co. at 325 S. Kresson St. near Bank Street were blown apart and that flames were erupting from the interior of the one-story cinder block building.
Firefighters from stations nearest the fire reported seeing heavy smoke and flames over the 300 block of S. Kresson as they left their firehouses.
Officer Annette Guarino, of the Southeastern District, said the flames were more than 100 feet high when she arrived just minutes after the first explosion.
"The flames were really way up there," she said.
Within minutes of the first alarm at 1:38 a.m., thousands of feet of fire hose was stretched from pumper trucks that took up positions as far away as a dozen blocks from the building that houses the Robertson Co.'s offices and warehouse.
A second alarm was sounded at 1:43 a.m.; a third at 1:49 a.m., and the fourth at 2:01 a.m., a fire department spokesman said.
The fire was declared under control at 3:46 a.m.
The building was unoccupied at the time the first explosion occurred. No firefighters were injured.
Police detoured traffic for blocks around.
The first explosion blew the entire east wall of the Robertson Co. building onto the Penn Central Railroad tracks that run along the back of the building.
Debris including huge chunks of cinder blocks fell on two sections of railroad tracks, forcing the closing of the line for several hours.
As more than 125 firefighters on foot and in at least three aerial towers battled the blaze from the front, the back and the roofs of two adjoining warehouses, a second explosion at 2:10 a.m. ripped apart the west wall apart and filled Kresson Street with debris.
Several firefighters and specta tors ran for cover behind fire engines as pieces of cinder block, wood and glass were propelled across Kresson Street and onto parking lots nearly 100 feet from the front of the burning building.
One firefighter was nearly hit by flying chunks of concrete as he ducked behind a fire truck.
"I heard a rumbling sound and knew it was going to go," said the firefighter.
David Bullock, president and part-owner of the 35-year-old firm, said the building is heated by several natural gas heaters suspended from the ceiling.
Mr. Bullock said the firm employs about 25 people and manufactures fabric and canvas products for commercial use and for the federal government.
Captain Robert Hatoff, a fire investigator, said he and Captain Dennis Howell, another investigator, would look at the possibility that the explosions and fire were caused by natural gas that somehow ignited.
The fire finished off what was left of the building. Two adjoining warehouses suffered smoke damage and some fire damage to the roofs.