Fire's fury creates sense of awe in Annapolitans

December 11, 1997|By MICHAEL OLESKER

UNDER A DRIZZLY sky the color of an oil spill, Annapolis residents gathered on Main Street early yesterday morning to see what the previous night's fire had done, and to stare at the twisted metal and the charred timber and the blackened Christmas decorations left behind, and to stand in simple awe.

John Patmore was there. The city's director of public works, who grew up in wartime Britain, turned to Annapolis Fire Chief Edward Sherlock and said, "Now you know what London was like in '41."

No bombs were dropped on Annapolis Tuesday evening, but the chilly night air was filled with smoke and flame, and 75 firefighters were clambering all over the place to keep the damage from spreading beyond three century-old buildings on Main Street and three more on State Circle behind it.

"Our biggest worry," Patmore was saying now, as he stood beneath a grimy morning drizzle, "was, 'Can we keep enough water coming to it?' We used 2 million gallons of water to contain this thing, plus we had a fireboat sucking water out of the harbor into a pump truck, which we took up Francis Street to get back to Main."

"In my 32 years in this business," Sherlock said, "this was about as rough as I've seen. The size of the fire, the flames, the stubbornness. And then we thought we had it, but we pulled away these drop ceilings, and it was just racing along under rTC there, which drove us from an offensive thrust into a defensive posture. We thought we were going to have to pull everybody out of there for a while."

Sherlock looked wearily at the damage. It was 10 in the morning, and he'd been up all night. The fire started about 5:15 Tuesday evening in the India Palace, 186 Main St., in a building constructed in the 1870s. It had no sprinkler system.

Then the blaze spread to American Spoon Foods, the gourmet food store next to it, and to lawyers' offices behind it at 5-7 State Circle, and then to the Christmas Spirit gift store below American Spoon.

Inside the Christmas Spirit now, the sight was heart-wrenching: angels with charred wings, cherubic dolls with singed faces, and slumping away from the place was Scott Edwards, behind dark glasses on this glum morning. His mother owns the store. Edwards started once or twice to say something, and choked on the words, and then walked silently away.

"All told," said Annapolis Fire Department Capt. Leonard Clark, "we're looking at about $2 million, maybe $3 million in damage."

Clark was standing in the Cafe Normandie. Like many of Main Street's establishments, the place was closed for business yesterday, and Clark was using its telephone to coordinate recovery efforts.

"I was at home when I heard the alarm," he said. "I knew there had to be something to it, but I never anticipated something like this. There hasn't been anything like this, not in my time."

A few feet from Clark was Jean Louis Evennon, owner of the Cafe Normandie. He pointed to his walls, to his curtains, to lines of ash that had found their way across Main Street, through his closed windows, and now darkened the interior of his restaurant.

"We looked across the street about 5 o'clock," he said, "and we saw some smoke. And then, so fast, there was fire everywhere, and so much more smoke. Even in here, it was everywhere. We were very busy with customers because this is our busiest season. And, of course, everyone had to leave."

He looked through a front window to the India Palace and the American Spoon. The roofing had been torn away the night before, and you could see inside to the charred remains. But workers were in the street, with rain falling, and they were preparing to tear everything down.

Kneeling on a sidewalk were public works people, and some gas and electric workers. Reaching into an opening below the street, they were severing the gas connection between the main artery and a valve, the way surgeons perform such procedures. The work wasn't as delicate, but the principle was the same.

"You sever it," said John Patmore, the public works chief, "and try not to tear it up. But we've got to sever it before we tear everything down, or else we'd cut off power to everybody else around here."

He looked at the ruins on Main Street now, and shook his head. Police were holding back a few dozen spectators who stood in the morning rain half a block away. There was nothing left to see now, no firefighters with hoses, no flames sweeping the sky. It was just the aftermath of so much fury, and the sense of awe at the power of fire.

And also, not to be diminished, memory of the extraordinary efforts by so many people who kept the blaze from spreading further on this old and crowded and vulnerable street.

Pub Date: 12/11/97

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