Factory fire destroys dreams of steady paycheck for newly rehired workers

April 17, 1992|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Staff Writer Staff Writer Richard Irwin contributed to this article.

Louise Cox was called back to work just eight days ago after being laid off for three months from her job at the A. L. Robertson Co. in East Baltimore.

Yesterday morning as she walked to work, she rounded the corner onto Kresson Street and saw that her workplace, where she assembled canvas safety harnesses for people who work in high places, was a pile of broken cinder block, brick and twisted metal.

An early-morning fire that started in an electrical panel destroyed one of the company's three buildings, which housed the office and most of the manufacturing equipment, putting Ms. Cox back on the unemployment rolls.

"I didn't hear about it. I don't put the TV on in the morning," Ms. Cox said. "It was heartbreaking, when I walked up to the business and saw that," she said, her voice still choking with emotion.

She has worked at Robertson for 19 years and said she had no hard feelings about being laid off. "I can understand, because every once in a while business gets slow," she said.

But she said it had been great to be working again. She supports herself and her mother, and the unemployment check only went so far. And then yesterday, she learned she was temporarily out of work again.

Company President David Bullock told the employees who arrived forwork yesterday morning that he would start over again as soon as he could.

"I'll just go on unemployment and wait until he calls me back," Ms. Cox said. "I will look around until they call me back. But I definitely will go back, because they're nice people to work for."

Mr. Bullock said that the company, at 325 S. Kresson St. near Bank Street, which manufactures canvas and other industrial fabric products for the federal government and private companies, had been hit hard by the recession. "Like everyone else, it's been slow. We've had a bad winter," he said. As a result, the seven employees were laid off about three months ago and five others were cut down to four days a week.

The layoffs had been difficult. The company was started by Mr. Bullock's grandfather in 1933, was passed on to Mr. Bullock's father and then, five years ago, to him. Many employees have been with the company for decades.

"Things were just picking up," he said. Business had improved enough by last week to recall the laid-off employees and to restore the others to a full five-day week.

"They've only worked a couple of days and now they're back on unemployment," Mr. Bullock said.

The four-alarm fire that destroyed the one-story cinder block building was spectacular. It started about 1:30 a.m. in an electrical panel, said Capt. Hector Torres, a Fire Department spokesman.

The flames ignited a natural gas line and caused at least two explosions. When firefighters arrived, the roof and east wall of the factory were blown apart and flames leaped from its interior. The explosions sent pieces of cinder block, wood and glass flying while firefighters and spectators ducked for cover.

Chunks of cinder block fell on two sections of Conrail tracks, closing the line for several hours. The debris was cleared off one track overnight, and the second was being cleared today. A Conrail spokesman said the effect on operations was "negligible."

The fire finished off what was left of the building. Damage was estimated at $450,000. Two adjoining warehouses received smoke damage and some fire damage to the roofs.

Mr. Bullock had been summoned to the scene by the Fire Department as the building was burning and was there to greet his employees as they arrived for work at 8 a.m. "I looked at the expression on most of their faces and they were shocked," he said.

Vernon Smith, a vice president who has been with the company for more than 40 years, called the fire "devastating."

"We had a little meeting with the employees and one of the girls said a prayer, and it really tore all of us up," he said. "We went through this back in '81, but that was a drop in the bucket compared to what happened here."

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