Fire shuts Mall in Columbia

Roofing tar ignites

workers, shoppers briefly evacuated

Some ignored alarms

June 03, 1999|By Nancy A. Youssef | Nancy A. Youssef,SUN STAFF

A fire that began on the roof of The Mall in Columbia yesterday forced the evacuation and temporary closing of the sprawling complex, creating confusion and fear among many of the hundreds of customers and employees inside.

"I saw a whole bunch of people running and I looked out the door," said Stan Palczewski, a salesman at Brookstone Company, a novelty shop. The flames "were shooting out of the roof and coming in the mall. A bunch of plastic was dropping down."

"I was just trying to keep my customers under control," he said.

Other people initially ignored the alarms, not believing there was a fire.

No one was injured, and the fire was contained quickly, though not until it sent black and white smoke billowing into the sky over downtown Columbia. Firefighters responded at 10: 53 a.m., finding flames engulfing the roof outside Tuerkes, a luggage store near J. C. Penney on the eastern side of the two-level mall.

"There was a heavy cloud of smoke," said Capt. Kenneth Byerly, one of the first county firefighters to respond. "You could see the plastic roofing material starting to melt."

Officials called a second alarm three minutes later and began evacuating the mall.

They said the cause of the fire was a tar pot that ignited where four construction workers were repairing the roof, said Capt. Michael Faith of the Howard County Fire and Rescue Department. The mall is undergoing extensive expansion and renovation.

"They have to heat roofing tar, and it is flammable," he said. "As they were bringing the tar from one point to another in a can, it ignited and the handle broke."

The fire was declared under control at 11: 24 a.m. Store employees were allowed back in the building at 11: 45 a.m., and the mall was reopened by 12: 05 p.m., but the damaged corner of the mall was closed off.

Two stores -- Tuerkes and the store underneath it, Champs Sports -- sustained most of the water damage. Champs Sports reopened by midafternoon; Tuerkes remained closed.

Officials estimated total damage at $100,000.

"Most of the damage was outside," Faith said. "Inside it was mostly water damage. There was very little smoke damage."

Although some people said they didn't hear an alarm, mall and fire officials said it sounded once the fire penetrated the building.

"There is no alarm on the outside of the building," said Capt. Michael Faith of the Howard County Fire and Rescue Department. "Once the Plexiglas [top of the mall] broke, the sprinklers went off and then the alarm" sounded.

Jeff Sneddon, the mall's vice president and general manager, said, "It functioned exactly the way it's supposed to."

Nevertheless, some witnesses said they knew there was a fire only when they saw flames through a window or heard the news from other people.

The fire alarm "goes off once a week or so for testing purposes, I guess, but I didn't hear it today," said Kimberly Carrington, 25, a Woodlawn resident who works at a kiosk in the hall below where the fire began. "I heard a lady scream there was a fire, and I started running to all the stores, letting everyone know."

Tuerkes manager Stephanie Mohler said she was working on the second floor when she heard some rumbling on the roof.

Having often heard rooftop noises made by construction workers, she dismissed the sound.

Suddenly, several security guards rushed into her store and told her to leave. Mohler and several employees raced out a back door.

"They just told us to get out," she said. "As we were leaving, one said, `It's starting to get through' " the roof.

"I was scared," Mohler said. "Excited nervousness."

By the time the fire broke through the roof, many of the people inside had left the mall, Faith said.

The last time the mall was evacuated was in 1996, when a portion of it was cleared because of a kitchen fire, Sneddon said.

He said the evacuation yesterday went according to plan.

"I think under the circumstances, everything went smoothly," he said.

Sun staff writer Del Quentin Wilber and editorial assistant Fay Lande contributed to this article.

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