BGE workers are criticized for delay in shutting off gas to burning buildings Utility employees had trouble finding valves, company says

December 11, 1997|By Tom Pelton and TaNoah Morgan | Tom Pelton and TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

As a fire partially fueled by a ruptured gas line devoured century-old buildings in downtown Annapolis Tuesday night, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. workers on the scene took an hour and 20 minutes to find gas connections.

Annapolis officials still don't know what caused the fire in the India Palace restaurant at 186 Main St. The blaze spread to do an estimated $3 million in damage, destroying two structures and closing 23 businesses at the height of the holiday shopping season.

The fire flared up again briefly in that building last night at 10: 45, but firefighters doused it quickly.

Capt. Leonard Clark, the city Fire Department spokesman, said he found it unacceptable that BGE took so long to find the gas connections Tuesday.

"I think that took too long," said Clark, standing beside the blackened shell of the building the city plans to demolish. "An hour and 20 minutes is a long time, especially when you've got a fire going on. For us in the emergency business, that is not the norm."

A spokeswoman for BGE, Peggy Mulloy, said the utility workers did the best they could.

But she said efforts to shut off the gas were slowed by the Fire Department's orders that workers stay away from a valve beneath the sidewalk outside the building for safety reasons.

The worst fire in the historic district in decades shut down the Main Street commercial strip yesterday. City officials said it could stay closed for days, until demolition removes the threat of falling debris.

Shop owners said they were suffering financial losses. Besides the burned-out businesses, at least two others were hurt by smoke and water damage.

Merchants added, however, that many were determined to move ahead with an "11th-hour" holiday shopping festival tonight.

Mulloy said that utility workers do not have computers in their trucks with which they can immediately locate shut-off valves.

Workers have to call the company's main office in Baltimore, where other employees search file drawers full of 23,000 square miles of utility maps on miniaturized photographic slides and then print the maps onto paper.

Efforts to get workers to the blaze were also hampered by a traffic jam and a gas emergency on Solomons Island Road that prevented a team closer to Annapolis from responding, she said.

"I think that things can always be handled better," said Mulloy. "But it's easy to say that in retrospect. I think that everyone did their best."

Ron Hollander, the owner of the connected buildings gutted at 186-184 Main St. and 5-7 State Circle, was not forgiving.

"That is the real cause of the total loss of the buildings," said Hollander, who estimated his insurance will cover half of the more than $1 million in damage to his properties.

"I knew exactly where the gas meters were located, if they had asked me. I was right there."

Debate over BGE's response was not the only one to arise in the wake of the fire, which destroyed two brick buildings that look like three separate structures.

They housed the Indian restaurant, American Spoon Foods gourmet food store, Christmas Spirit gift shop and the law offices of lobbyist Gary R. Alexander.

Officials also were questioning why the owner of the joined buildings did not install sprinklers -- although this is not required by law in old buildings. Sprinklers might have staved off total destruction of the buildings, said Clark.

During a massive 1995 reconstruction of Main Street, the city offered businesses connections to new water lines for sprinkler systems if the businesses paid for them. Fewer than a quarter of the nearly 70 businesses did so because of costs that reached $50,000 per building, said city administrator John L. Prehn Jr.

Ann Fligsten, president of the Historic Annapolis Foundation, said the fire should spur the city to require sprinkler systems in historic structures.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening said the General Assembly should look into that issue. He also promised that the state will offer business loans to shop owners and grants to the city to cover overtime for emergency workers.

BGE gave the following time table for its response to the fire: The fire was reported to the Annapolis Fire Department at 5: 15 p.m.

Fire officials called the utility at 5: 56 p.m.

A utility worker dispatched from Severna Park arrived at the scene at 6: 25 p.m.

At 6: 29 p.m., fire officials asked the utility worker to shut off the gas at 5 State Circle, 7 State Circle and 1 State Circle.

The worker did not know whether these buildings received gas or where the valves were, said Mulloy. He called headquarters in Baltimore.

At 6: 30 p.m., the worker called for backup. A backup crew arrived 40 minutes later after being stuck in traffic on Rowe Boulevard in Annapolis.

At 7: 06 p.m. the Fire Department asked to have gas shut off at 184 Main St., but then said utility workers could not do this because they would have to get too close to the fire.

With the aid of information from BGE headquarters, at 7: 50 p.m. the workers in Annapolis figured out there were no gas accounts listed for 5, 7 and 1 State Circle.

Mulloy said 1 State Circle has no gas service at all. The other two addresses receive gas for ranges on the first floor and heaters on the first and second floors but they get it through the connected addresses on Main Street, according to Molloy and lTC Hollander.

At 7: 50 p.m., utility workers advised the fire department that they should shut off the gas to these buildings from Main Street.

The company shut off the gas at 180 Main St. at 7: 50 p.m.

The company shut off the gas at 186 Main St. at 8: 50 p.m.

The company shut off the gas at 184 Main St. at 10: 30 p.m.

Pub Date: 12/11/97

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