At least 4 firefighters hospitalized in 8-alarm blaze Fire destroys landmark city foundry

September 17, 1995|By Anne Haddad and Jacques Kelly | Anne Haddad and Jacques Kelly,Sun Staff Writers Sun staff writer Ivan Penn contributed to this article.

An eight-alarm fire that seriously injured at least four 'u firefighters -- and possibly killed one -- demolished a massive, historic, one-time iron foundry in the Woodberry section of North Baltimore early today.

The fire burned on a rainy night through the building in the 2000 block of Clipper Park Drive, in an 1860s-vintage stone building that once housed the Poole & Hunt Foundry. The complex is near the foot of the city's famed Television Hill, and in the valley of the Jones Falls near the Pepsi Cola sign that Jones Falls Expressway motorists have used as a landmark for years.

A spokesman for the Maryland Shock Trauma Center confirmed about 1 a.m. that four firefighters had been admitted in serious condition but would give no other details. Identities of the injured firefighters were withheld. Unconfirmed reports at the fire were that one firefighter had been killed.

The injuries and perhaps the fatality occurred, witnesses said, when the building's front wall and much of its roof collapsed sometime before 10 p.m.

"The flames were shooting above the expressway," said eyewitness Brian Lippy of the 4200 block of Newport Ave.

"Once the fire got going, the front wall fell in and it looked like it took three or four firemen with it."

Dorothy Hawes of the 3400 block of nearby Seneca St. said she saw injured firefighters being pulled out of the building, which is right at the Woodberry light rail station.

"They put some of the firefighters on the light rail at that station and backed them out, because they couldn't get the ambulances out there," Ms. Hawes said.

Other witnesses said as many as seven injured firefighters were taken by light rail to North Avenue, where they were carried into ambulances.

Ms. Hawes and her son, Isaac, said the fire burned violently along the blocklong building, with walls and ceilings caving in all along, from the time the fire began at about 9:30 p.m. The fire was virtually out by about 1 a.m., but still smoldering.

"There was just this horrible big sound, and it was like there was a big crash," Ms. Hawes said. "It's been doing that through the whole thing."

The Victorian-style building is on the National Registry of Historic Places. It abuts Druid Hill Park, and sits over a stream that once powered the old factory. The area now is inhabited by artists' studios and other commercial ventures, including the Rock Gym, in which climbers scaled the walls with safety cables. The famed Meadow Mill, once the home of London Fog clothing, is nearby, but was not involved.

Jim Ellis, owner of the Rock Gym, dialed 911 at 9:40 p.m., when his electricity went off just after he heard what sounded like a loud pop.

"I thought it sounded like an electrical transformer exploding," he said. Mr. Ellis evacuated climbers from the gym, which is at the western edge of the cavernous building.

So intense was the fire that police and firefighters evacuated homes in three blocks of nearby Druid Park Drive.

Many of those residents went to the nearby Woodberry United Methodist Church. Electricity to much of the Hampden-Woodberry section of the city was out of service about midnight.

"The fire was raining down on all the houses," said the resident of one, Jack Dailey, who also is chairman of the church's administrative council. "The police were going door to door yelling, 'Get out, get out.' "

Isaac Hawes, 15, and some neighbors had to link several garden hoses together to put out flames that spread to woods between the burning building and their homes.

The city's light rail train headquarters was blocked off by equipment responding to the fire. A few minutes before midnight, police had cordoned off the 41st Street bridge to prevent spectators from going onto it.

Bonnie Berry, a bar owner in the 1600 block of Union Ave., said she saw several explosions that sent a fireball more than 100 feet into the air. She said she saw the building's front wall and part of the roof collapse sometime after 10 p.m.

"I heard at least five big booms," she said, sending the flames skyward.

About 12:30 p.m., with the fire dwindling to isolated spots, one witness said the old stone building and its peaked roof had been reduced to a pile of smoldering rubble.

The foundry was founded by Robert Poole, an Irishman who came to the city in 1818 as a young man, and formed a partnership with German H. Hunt.

Their foundry won some contracts and patented money-making devices over the years, but is perhaps best remembered these days for having melted the pig iron from which 36 iron columns and brackets were used in the U.S. Capitol dome in the 1860s.

At its peak, the business had some 400 workers who turned out steam engines, textile machinery, screw-pile lighthouses, hydraulic cylinders, grist mill water-power turbines and base rings for battleship turret guns. The buildings were eventually acquired by the Franklin Balmar Co., which 50 years ago was a subcontractor on the Manhattan Project's atomic bomb.

By 1972, the old foundry was sold to a maker of kitchen cabinets and much of the space was subdivided for small firms and artists.

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