School praises fire crews Western Maryland College gives thanks for its historic gym

Building saved, refurbished

Nearly 200 volunteers responded to blaze on New Year's Eve

December 08, 1997|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

About 100 volunteer firefighters returned to Gill Gymnasium at Western Maryland College yesterday, nearly a year after battling a powerful blaze in the building.

They wore dress uniforms instead of turnout gear and found the air much clearer than it was on Dec. 31.

"I can actually see, and I can breathe without a mask," said Westminster Chief Jeffrey R. Alexander, standing in the refurbished building. From nearly the same vantage point last year, Alexander had "zero visibility" as thick black smoke and fierce flames enveloped the 59-year-old building on the Westminster campus.

The five-alarm blaze nearly destroyed the gymnasium. The efforts of 20 volunteer companies from Carroll, Frederick, Baltimore and Howard counties and southern Pennsylvania saved it. While the college offered its official thanks at a reception yesterday, many recalled the event.

When the first alarm sounded shortly after 7 a.m. on New Year's Eve, Westminster was "the first here and the last to leave" of the 20 companies and 200 volunteers to respond, said Alexander, who heard the siren as he arrived home from an eight-hour night shift as a Maryland state policeman -- his "day job."

While firefighters doused the building and endured a bone-chilling rain, Alexander led crews into the gym's basement, hoping to stop the fire at the suspected point of origin. The cause of the fire was never determined.

"Every time we went into the basement, we were up to our knees in cold water," he said.

After battling the blaze all day, Alexander returned to the police barracks in Frederick by 11 p.m., working one of the busiest nights of the year for state police. He had had less than two hours sleep.

Robert H. Chambers, president of Western Maryland College, paid homage to the firefighters and thanked the companies -- including all 14 Carroll County fire departments.

"We are standing in a room that burned literally to the ground less than a year ago," said Chambers."Thank you for making it possible for us to save the building you are in right now. You saved the walls and prevented any serious damage to the building next door."

Restoration work on the building was completed in September, in time for the start of fall classes. Except for the thick brick walls, now painted a soft white, everything in the building is new.

"Last year, all these walls were black," said Becky Martin, women's basketball coach. "That we are back in here shows a massive community effort."

Michael Rehfeld, Westminster assistant chief, stared at those walls, but he said he was really seeing the roofless hulk left after the blaze.

He remembered sending 15-man crews into the basement for 30 minutes at a time -- about as long as their air bottles lasted. But when the building's two main support beams failed, he had to recall the crews -- long before a spectacular fireball shot through the roof.

"We knew it wasn't safe to stay inside anymore, and we switched to a defensive tactic," Rehfeld said. "This fire fight was a success because nobody was hurt, and we confined the fire to the building of origin. And in less than a year, they are using the same structure."

Westminster, which provided nine of the 30 pieces of equipment used to fight the fire, commemorated the event by driving Engine 34 to the reception yesterday. No sirens blared, and the ** pace was much slower than last year.

"We had so much equipment at the scene, we had to call in a task force from Randallstown for backup," Rehfeld said. "We were covered in case of other fires."

Veteran firefighters called the fire one of Carroll County's biggest, with damage estimated at about $1.7 million. But they all said it could have been much worse.

"With a fire of that potential, the possibility of injuries escalates by the minute," said Bob Cumberland, first vice president of the Westminster company. "Suppressing the fire in the manner we did showed great professionalism. Everybody knew his job and looked out for the safety of each other."

Each company received a commemorative brass plaque that reads, "In grateful recognition of the extraordinary service in saving Gill Gymnasium, Dec. 31, 1996." Attached to the plaque is a small wooden model of the gym floor, painted in the college's traditional green and yellow colors.

The college also honored the women's auxiliaries, which spent the long, cold day handing out coffee and sandwiches to weary, hungry firefighters.

"Most of us were here until 9 p.m., and then went back and cleaned up so the engines would be back in service if needed," said Pat Spangler of the Reese Ladies Auxiliary. "I don't think any of us made it out for New Year's."

Pub Date: 12/08/97

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