More than a dozen investigators are sifting through the ashes of Tuesday's five-alarm fire, trying to determine what started the blaze that destroyed the 58-year-old Gill Gymnasium at Western Maryland College.
At 7 a.m. yesterday, teams of deputy fire marshals and agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms began the painstaking search of the gutted building, which housed athletic and ROTC offices, an auxiliary gymnasium and equipment storage on the Westminster campus.
"The teams are digging to pinpoint the point of origin and looking for clues to the cause," said W. Faron Taylor, deputy state fire marshal. "So far, there is no sign to lead us one way or the other."
Teams also are interviewing witnesses, campus staff, contractors and the first of 200 volunteer firefighters to respond to the blaze, reported at 7: 23 a.m. Tuesday by a painting contractor.
The fire did not progress to adjoining buildings because of "the fire department's early response and the quality of that response," Taylor said.
Inspectors are evaluating the structural integrity of the building and reconstructing its layout, focusing on the basement, where the contractor first detected the fire.
By late afternoon yesterday, the state fire protection engineer had reviewed the original construction, which dates to 1938, to determine how the building would react under fire. The information will help develop a computerized model of the building and "give us an idea of the type fire and how it spread," the deputy fire marshal said.
Campus security had checked the building at 4 a.m. Tuesday and found nothing awry, but a routine check might not detect a smoldering fire, Taylor said. "All it means is that security did not see anything," he said.
Initially, firefighters battled the fire from inside the basement, but intense heat and thick smoke forced them outside. Crews sprayed the two-story brick building with large streams of water from aerial ladder trucks.
The fire was still smoldering Tuesday when the college's insurer contacted Inrecon, an Adelphi company that began cleanup efforts early Wednesday.
College officials are awaiting reports from the fire marshal and a structural engineer before deciding whether to raze or renovate the charred structure. The slate roof is severely damaged and one fire inspector reported several cracks in the brick walls.
"We do not yet know if the building is structurally sound," said Joyce Muller, the college's director of public information.
The college used the Gill gym as auxiliary space for practices, intramural competitions and summer programs. A new gymnasium opened adjacent to the old one in 1984.
"We used [the Gill gym] for agility and weight-training programs in the off-season," said Tim Keating, football coach. "We are going to miss the space. Hours will be tighter in the new gym."
The Baltimore Ravens football team, which practiced at WMC last summer, did not use the old field house. Muller said it was premature to speculate whether the fire would affect the Ravens' decision to return.
Keating and several coaches hoped to get into their offices at the front of the damaged building late yesterday. A thick brick wall between the offices and the burned-out section kept flames away, but the staff is expecting smoke and water damage.
Keating is worried about years of videotaped games and a new video editing machine in his office.
"I think within the next few days they will allow us to go in and get what we need," said Becky Martin, women's basketball coach, who had on file 18 months of recruiting work.
The adjoining new gym, known as Gill Physical Education Learning Center, also sustained smoke damage, but Inrecon contractors expected to have it opened by tomorrow.
"Pending a test of the sprinkler and fire alarm system, we anticipate that Gill Center will reopen for full use on Saturday," Muller said.
She expects schedule juggling, but no disruption of classes scheduled in the new Gill Center, including four January courses that start Monday.
As student athletes returned to campus yesterday for practices, coaches were scrambling for space.
"So many people have offered assistance," Martin said. "There has been a great outpouring of help."
The women's basketball team, scheduled to play Rippon College on Sunday, practiced two hours at Westminster High School last night. St. John Catholic School offered its gym this morning to the Rippon team, here since Tuesday from Wisconsin.
Pub Date: 1/03/97