Fire ruins Hollins St. Exchange Eleven-alarm inferno is one of the largest firefighters can recall

Damage set at $3 million

Brick building housed artists and their work

candle nearby blamed

November 11, 1995|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer John Rivera contributed to this article.

A raging 11-alarm fire that could be seen for miles engulfed a block-long building in Southwest Baltimore early yesterday, claiming homes and businesses in what firefighters described as one of the most spectacular area blazes in decades.

Flames shot more than 150 feet above the Hollins Street Exchange, a seven-story structure that housed a variety of enterprises, from furniture makers to recording studios.

The fire sent black smoke billowing over the city and caused damage estimated by fire officials at $3 million.

Three firefighters suffered minor injuries.

Officials said the fire was started by homeless people in an abandoned warehouse across the street.

Those interviewed told investigators that the blaze was sparked by a man carrying a lighted candle searching for a can of soda.

The blaze at the Hollins Street Exchange burned out 50 businesses, and living spaces used by 23 artisans -- many of whom had invested their life's savings to start careers and had no insurance to cover their loss.

Among those losing property was Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's 24-year-old son, Gregory, who lived at the exchange in the 2300 block of W. Hollins St. He shared a studio with an artist, a filmmaker and a musician.

The younger Mr. Schmoke, a budding filmmaker, lost screenplays and a portfolio he planned to use to apply to an arts college.

"They were trying to revitalize this area of Southwest Baltimore," said Warrin McDaniels, the resident manager of the Exchange.

"It's a devastating setback. People had their whole lives in this building and now they've lost everything," he said.

Mayor Schmoke called the blaze "a tragedy" and said he "was amazed at how quickly it spread. Fortunately, no one was hurt -- we are still left with a lot of displaced people."

Yesterday evening, firefighters continued to pour water on the complex of interconnected buildings that once housed a furniture manufacturing company.

Wrecking crews began to knock down the remaining crumbling walls.

The fire began about midnight and burned out of control for more than seven hours.

Though the fire was considered under control at 7:15 a.m. yesterday, the rubble continued to smolder last night.

More than 200 firefighters battled the blaze, frustrated by broken gas mains, low water pressure and flying embers that threatened homes several blocks away.

The blaze outdid the nine-alarm Clipper Industrial Park fire Sept. 16 that destroyed a 19th-century iron foundry used by artists for studios.

A firefighter was killed and 17 others injured when a wall collapsed there.

Firefighters said that yesterday's blaze was one of the most intense they have encountered.

"We have not had an 11-alarm fire in Baltimore in many years," said Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, a Fire Department spokesman.

"There is an awful lot of destruction here."

A preliminary investigation has ruled the cause accidental. Arson investigators questioned a bus load of homeless people, one of whom they determined set the fire -- but "certainly not to burn the building down," Chief Torres said.

Mr. McDaniels said he discovered the fire about midnight when he heard a "crinkling" sound and called 911.

He rushed through the seven-story building where the tenants lived and alerted people.

Firefighters said they arrived to find the warehouse engulfed in flames. They said flying embers and intense heat sparked the fire across the street at the exchange building, which quickly went up in flames.

"It just overwhelmed them," Mr. McDaniels said. "It was moving faster then the amount of equipment that was here."

Firefighters began an interior attack, but quickly retreated when an impending collapse became apparent.

"The fire gained headway very quickly," Chief Torres said. "We had to evacuate the building and go into a defensive mode."

The spokesman said firefighters also had problems with low water pressure. Hundreds of hose lines stretched for blocks to hook up to hydrants served by more powerful water mains. Ruptured natural gas lines also fueled the fire until officials could find the shut-off valve buried beneath the rubble.

As firefighters continued to work, displaced residents and business owners huddled in a warm city bus, drinking coffee and eating doughnuts supplied by the Fire Department.

"This is most of our life savings," said Charles Childs, who is a partner in a gospel recording company whose studios were in the exchange building. The company lost more than $200,000 in recording equipment.

"We took our money, joined together and created this," said Mr. Childs, who saw the flames from U.S. 40 as he returned home from a recording session in Columbia. "We got to pick up the pieces and go on from here."

Ricky Ratliff, 40, said he lost about $60,000 worth of equipment he used to build custom-designed furniture.

"Everything I own is gone," he said.

Mark Stafford, one of the owners of Stafford & Brothers, a furniture store that has been a fixture on West Pratt Street since 1900, lost a warehouse full of new furniture valued at $250,000.

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