After blaze, efforts begin to assist displaced 11-alarm fire smolders as business owners seek ways to rebuild

November 12, 1995|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

The 11-alarm fire that demolished the Hollins Street Exchange early Friday was keeping city firefighters busy yesterday as government agencies started programs to help displaced business owners.

In addition to recurring flare-ups, firefighters were hampered again by low water pressure, a situation that Baltimore's public works director attributed to decades-old water pipes in older neighborhoods.

As a crane knocked down brick walls yesterday, smoke poured from the center of the old seven-story furniture manufacturing company, used most recently for a variety of entrepreneurs, from cabinetmakers to recording artists.

Fire officials predicted they would be at the site in the 2300 block of Hollins St. until at least tomorrow. The fire burned out of control for seven hours, but continued to smolder last night, more than 40 hours after it erupted.

"All seven stories just pancaked down in the basement," said Battalion Chief Mike Moritz, who was on the scene yesterday. "And it's all burning."

He said the crane would lift the debris so firefighters could train their hoses on hot spots.

Fire officials said homeless people accidentally started the fire in an abandoned mattress warehouse across the street. They attributed it to people trying to keep warm or to a man who was using a candle for light to find a soda.

The fire destroyed 50 businesses and left 23 artisans who lived in their studios homeless. At least 150 people worked at the exchange building. Damage was estimated at $3 million.

Two fire engines remained at the building overnight. But Chief Moritz said he called in a one-alarm assignment yesterday afternoon -- bringing eight units to the scene -- because of the flare-ups and low water pressure that he called "terrible."

Water also was a problem early Friday as firefighters battled what they called the most spectacular blaze in decades. At times, flames shot 150 feet above the building and could be seen for miles.

Fire officials said on Friday that they were forced to lay hose line for several blocks as they searched for more powerful water mains.

George G. Balog, director of the Baltimore Department of Public Works, attributed the problem to the 80-year-old 6-inch lines prevalent in older sections of Baltimore. Now, he said, 8-inch pipes are considered small.

But Mr. Balog also noted that a tremendous amount of water was used to fight the blaze, though an estimate was not available. "We were getting all out of the mains that we could," he said, adding that some fire trucks increased the pressure, "pushing it a little."

The public works director said he was at the fire scene Friday with Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr., assessing water pressure. Later, he said workers tested all the hydrants and found they all meet Fire Department specifications. "I think water was getting there," Mr. Balog said.

Meanwhile, city and state agencies worked to help the 150 workers who are trying to decide how to rebuild. Many of the displaced had invested their life's savings to start careers and had no insurance.

Some lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in recording equipment or furniture tools. One company that has been on West Pratt Street since 1900 lost its warehouse and $250,000 worth of custom-made furniture.

The tenants have scheduled a meeting tomorrow to decide what to do next. The Baltimore Development Corp. and the Mayor's Advisory Council on Art and Culture are working to relocate the businesses.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening has declared the fire a Small Business Administration disaster, making loans available to help tenants re-establish their businesses. State officials said 80 percent of the businesses did not have insurance.

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