Ex-tenants of Hollins Street Exchange have questions after destructive fire

January 31, 1996|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

Stan Scipio unlocks the door to his new home in a bleak industrial building overlooking Greenmount Cemetery and points to its most redeeming feature -- the fire-resistant concrete floors.

It has been nearly three months since a blaze at the Hollins Street Exchange destroyed everything Mr. Scipio owned in his home and television production business, except his car and a video camera that he used to film the fire as he fled.

While they struggle to rebuild their lives, Mr. Scipio and others who were burned out of the seven-story converted warehouse have been trying to find out why the 11-alarm blaze -- which began in a warehouse across the street -- spread so fast through their building.

They say the building's owner never took steps to protect them against fire.

They say the Fire Department has stonewalled them in refusing to turn over key documents.

And they say city officials didn't respond adequately to their need for financial aid and new space for their businesses and art studios.

The former tenants are left with troubled memories of the night they lost their possessions.

They say they never saw the sprinklers go off during the Nov. 10 fire, and they say the owner never installed fire doors in hallways, homes or studios to slow the spread of fire.

They also say windows and doors to the fire escape were bolted or nailed, and that the fire escape was dilapidated, with holes in the stairs.

Mr. Scipio and Tobechi Tobechukwu, a photographer who also lived and worked at the Hollins Street Exchange, say they left the burning building through a dark internal stairway with no emergency lights.

"We prayed a lot," recalls Mr. Scipio.

And they say it was a miracle that only dogs and cats -- but no people -- died in the fire in the 2300 block of Hollins St.

City officials say the building had never had a fire inspection.

Shortly after the fire, The Sun reported that city officials had discovered that the building's owners, Alvin L. and Cary N. Blank, using the name Hollins Street Investment Associated Ltd. Partnership, had never obtained building permits or arranged for inspections to ensure that fire precautions were taken.

At the time, Alvin Blank disputed city officials and said he had obtained building permits.

Last week, Mr. Blank said he was too busy to talk and did not respond to a reporter's repeated requests for comment.

Turning to the city for help, the former Hollins Street tenants and a lawyer they have hired contend that Fire Department officials have refused to provide reports on the fire.

The Fire Department's spokesman, Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, said the request for reports has been turned over to the city's law department.

He said some of the information requested -- such as firefighters' field notes -- is not usually released to the public.

Former tenants say they have found rebuilding their lives and businesses difficult.

Although they say the Red Cross moved swiftly to meet their immediate needs, four former tenants said city officials were slow to keep promises they made to help tenants find new studio space and replace lost belongings.

But Reggie Scriber, director of the ombudsman's office for the city housing department, said the city set up an emergency center in the neighborhood immediately after the fire to help people relocate businesses and homes.

And he said the city was able to find homes for five families.

Angela Franklin, a nationally known artist who lost her studio in the fire, said the city sent a check to tenants two months after the fire for $5,000 -- but only after Ms. Franklin mailed a letter requesting the funds to the home of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. Mr. Schmoke's son, Gregory, also lost his home in the fire.

The former tenants hope more money will come from a fund-raiser March 4 at the Eubie Blake Center.

Mr. Tobechukwu, a 29-year-old artist and photographer who lived and worked at the exchange, lost all his photographic equipment, his negatives, prints and artwork.

He is rebuilding his studio and home in an empty, 5,000-square-foot space in the same concrete building where Mr. Scipio and his family have moved.

Mr. Scipio has brought to his new home and television studio the one thing that survived the devastating fire: the large black and white sign that reads "Hollins Street Exchange."

Some people told him it might be bad luck to display the remnant in his new home.

However, he sees it as a sign of renewal.

Scanning the large, open space where he has yet to build walls for his studio and living area, Mr. Scipio says, "We're going to be up and running. I don't know how to say die."

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