Alarm systems fail in Trade Center fire Building evacuated

repairs under way

December 06, 1997|By Peter Hermann and Karen Masterson | Peter Hermann and Karen Masterson,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Erin Texeira contributed to this article

A series of explosions and dark plumes of smoke failed to trigger fire alarms at Baltimore's World Trade Center yesterday, slowing the evacuation of about 700 people who were not immediately warned of the emergency.

Electricians were busy working on repairs last night and could not say if the state-owned office building that towers over the Inner Harbor and houses international trade and shipping companies could reopen today. Power had not been restored as of last night.

A weekend closure would prevent tourists from reaching the Top of the World observation floor that offers a panoramic view of the city and its waterways from 29 stories above the ground.

No injuries were reported, and most people said the evacuation was orderly despite the absence of formal warning. Workers in one office said they had to feel their way to an emergency exit because smoke was so thick they couldn't see.

Some workers said they were notified by building security guards and maintenance workers; others said they left when they peered out of windows and saw a dozen fire engines blocking East Pratt Street. Traffic downtown backed up for hours yesterday afternoon.

"It was a minor incident, but the alarms should have gone off, and people are there right now looking into it," said Tay Yoshitani, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration, which runs the building and is headquartered there.

Inspector Michael Maybin, a city fire department spokesman, said officials do not know why the alarms didn't sound. He said it is possible the electrical short that sparked the fire on the 28th floor in a stock brokerage office knocked out the alarm system.

"All we know is what didn't happen," Maybin said. The spokesman said the fire burned itself out in the closet and activated sprinklers that sent water cascading down stairwells and into elevator shafts. Damage to offices on the 27th and 28th floors was estimated at $29,000.

Four people trapped in an elevator on the 14th floor were rescued by firefighters. The other elevators in the $22 million building worked properly and descended automatically to the first floor, fire officials said. But officials said they are concerned that the alarms didn't sound.

"There were no alarms, no announcements," said Kristen Henel of Crofton, who works for Gray Kirk Vansant Advertising Inc. on the 11th floor. "The lights just went out. I checked to see if people plugged in too many space heaters."

Henel said the blackout was the first sign of a problem. Then she heard sirens. "We were looking out the windows and knew something was up when we saw all the firetrucks," she said. "It wasn't bad at all. We just left."

Workers reported an orderly evacuation, with the only problem being clogged stairwells. Phones worked in some offices, didn't work in others. Some people thought it was a fire drill, and workers from an office party carried their drinks down 11 flights of stairs.

"Everybody was very calm," said Rebecca Barber, a Port Administration public affairs official who walked down 20 flights. "It was kind of surreal. People were quiet and calm. You really couldn't tell anything was going on. I could smell smoke, but there were no fire alarms going off."

The fire was first reported about 2: 30 p.m. when investment bankers at The Chapman Company heard a series of explosions in a closet used as a large conduit for electrical wires. "There was black smoke everywhere," said Nathan A. Chapman Jr., the company president.

"We saw thick black smoke and sparks coming from the electrical closet," said Earl U. Bravo Sr., the company's chief operating officer, who waited out the evacuation sipping hot chocolate and eating miniature hamburgers at the Cheesecake Factory at Harborplace next door.

"We quickly made the determination that we'd better get the hell out of the there," Bravo said. "I got out my cellular phone and called 911."

Chapman said the staff panicked when they realized there was no way out except through the smoke. "We had to feel our way to the stairwell," he said.

Susan Likens, with Gray Kirk Vansant Advertising Inc., said she and two others were trapped in an elevator between the seventh and eighth floors for 10 to 15 minutes. It was dark, she said, and they repeatedly called the front desk but were told they would have to wait.

"I just heard the gushing water coming down the elevator shaft and assumed it was fire," Likens said. In a panic, she said they pried open the elevator door and jumped out onto the seventh floor.

Information line

The Maryland Port Administration has set up a number for people to call this weekend to see if the building will be open. It is 410-633-1066.

Pub Date: 12/06/97

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