A six-alarm fire tore through a block of Ellicott City's historic Main Street yesterday, destroying at least five businesses and forcing people out of store-top apartments on a narrow thoroughfare that has been a hub for this former mill town for more than 150 years.
No injuries were reported, but the shopping and tourist district sustained an estimated $1 million in damage.
The mid-afternoon fire spread quickly from the rear of Main Street Blues restaurant and bar and engulfed a row of stores selling rugs, paintings, furniture and knickknacks for the holiday season.
FOR THE RECORD - In an article yesterday about a six-alarm fire in Ellicott City, the name of Joseph Bliffin, manager of Cacao Lane restaurant on Main Street, was misspelled.
The Sun regrets the error.
More than 100 firefighters from around the Baltimore area struggled for several hours before containing the flames. Faced with aged buildings that lacked sprinkler systems, they were unable to control the fire until well into the evening. Authorities said it was unlikely Main Street would be reopened this morning.
"Main Street Blues is destroyed and all the apartments above it are destroyed," said Joseph Bifflin, manager of Cacao Lane restaurant, across the street from the burning buildings. Bifflin and other store owners, shoppers and county officials gathered and watched in disbelief, recalling a similar fire that claimed six buildings on the street 15 years ago this week.
"This is so sad for everyone here," said County Executive James N. Robey, who lives in Ellicott City. "This is the second time they have been through all of this."
At 3:12 p.m., a bartender and cook at Main Street Blues called 911 after smelling smoke and discovering a fire in the back of the building. In less than a half-hour the fire intensified from one alarm to four, and plumes of smoke were visible miles away.
"Smoke was coming from Main Street Blues and the Spring House [Design] store," said Tom Schell, who lives in the building across from Main Street Blues. "Flames were coming up through the roof and between the buildings. There was thick yellowish smoke almost like sulfur."
State fire marshals are unlikely to determine a cause of the fire until at least today.
Explosion shakes town
Charlene Townsend, owner of the building that Schell lives in, said she heard a big explosion come from the direction of Main Street Blues about a half-hour after the fire started.
"It was really scary," she said. "Everything rattled. It seemed like the whole town shook."
Conditions were tough on firefighters because of the nature of the historic street. The buildings, some of which are more than 100 years old, share walls and lack sprinkler systems, allowing the fire to spread quickly.
"[In] some of these buildings, rapid fire-spread is very easy," said Capt. Chris Shimer, a spokesman for Howard County Fire & Rescue.
Though sprinklers would have been required if the buildings were constructed today, Robey said there was no requirement to retrofit them.
"But I sure would like to see them in there," he said.
Lack of access
The firefighters faced other challenges. A steep, grassy slope behind the buildings limited firefighters to attacking the blaze from only one angle -- the street. Live wires forced them to step down from high ladders where they were dousing the flames from above. And well into the evening, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. workers were trying to contain natural gas leaks.
"Access is a big problem over here because it's not like you have access to four sides," Shimer said. "We'll be here all night."
In the evening darkness, Robey took business and property owners down as close as possible to the damaged buildings.
"It's good for them to actually see for themselves," Robey said. "It's [a] tragedy when it's a whole community."
At 11 p.m., more than two hours after the fire was contained, smoke still billowed out the rooftops of Main Street Blues, Rugs to Riches and adjoining buildings.
Water flowed from the front steps and dripped from signs. Brick fronts were charred. Inside windowless buildings, orange embers fell from wooden ceilings.
On the street were the remains of once-thriving businesses: water-soaked cardboard boxes, pieces of furniture and, floating in puddles, plastic foam packing pellets.
Fire hoses, glass and yellow police tape littered the street.
"What it looks like right now is we have five buildings that are damaged but those are broken up into numerous businesses and apartments," said Allen Gosnell, spokesman for the Maryland State Fire Marshal, based in Towson. "It is bad. Fortunately, we had over 100 firemen here, and there were no injuries of occupants.
"The tragedy is, this is historic real estate which may or may not be restored."
County officials were expected to meet this morning to assess the damage and decide what to do next.
Enalee Bounds, owner of Ellicott's Country Store across Main Street, said her store was busy with customers when she first heard news of the fire.