Howard County officials vowed yesterday to reopen Ellicott City's fire-ravaged historic Main Street as early as tonight, a move intended to ensure a lucrative holiday season at the popular tourist attraction.
Standing amid the still-smoldering wreckage from Tuesday's six-alarm fire, officials said none of the 19th-century buildings needs to be razed. But some top floors and portions of facades need to be torn down, they said.
The worst damage was at the rear of the buildings, a blackened, tangled mass of furniture, ceilings and walls.
Whether the building owners can or will rebuild them quickly was unclear. But County Executive James N. Robey sought to assure merchants and the public that Main Street will thrive again soon.
"Let me at this point stress that Ellicott City is alive and well," he said yesterday afternoon, hours after huddling with devastated business owners. "The merchants expressed considerable concerns that the impression is that Ellicott City is gone, and that is absolutely not true."
The cause of the fire, which raged for more than eight hours and wasn't considered controlled until 11 p.m., remained under investigation.
Arson was ruled out preliminarily, as investigators from the state fire marshal's office and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms got their first looks inside Main Street Blues, the restaurant-bar where the blaze was originally believed to have begun, and in the alley next to the restaurant, where one eyewitness described seeing the first flames.
The initial estimate Tuesday night of at least $1 million in damage might have been conservative. Bruce T. Taylor, who owns three buildings destroyed in the blaze, said the damage to his property exceeded $1 million.
Taylor, a doctor who runs Taylor Manor in Ellicott City, said he plans to rebuild on Main Street with better materials while maintaining the properties' historic facade.
"The three buildings are total losses," Taylor said. "As soon as possible, we will get all the debris out of there, make it safe, so it's not an eyesore or anything. We will get architects and engineers working with us to see how we can reconstruct something that is aesthetically pleasing and historic in character."
The other building owners could not be reached for comment.
More than 100 firefighters battled the fire throughout the afternoon and night Tuesday, and about 40 worked through the night to control about a half-dozen areas of smoldering embers.
Richard Taylor, vice president of the Ellicott City Business Association, said his goal in coming days is to let people know that Main Street is not destroyed and will be open for tourist traffic.
Main Street residents and business owners displaced by the fire slept at friends' houses Tuesday night. As the sun rose, they trickled back to Main Street to survey the damage and find out when they might be able to get back to work or return home.
The scene, even early in the morning yesterday, was busy. Narrow Main Street was cordoned off with police tape. Fire engines blocked the street. Thick smoke billowed through the narrow corridor.
In contrast with the rear of the buildings, the storefronts appeared in better shape, with intact signs: Main Street Blues, Rugs to Riches, Legends, the Nature Nook, Spring House Design.
Main Street Blues had fliers in the window advertising live performances. Two decorative plants outside Rugs to Riches were in good shape.
Store owners and managers expressed a range of emotion, from relief to disbelief.
"I feel blessed by God that he didn't think it was my time to come home yet," said Teriko Goodwyn, manager of Rugs to Riches, who was in the store when the fire broke out.
"Everybody's just not believing it yet," said a stunned Dave Carroll, manager of Main Street Blues, sipping coffee and surveying the damage with bleary eyes.
`Shocking, painful' loss
Marci Krishnamoorthy, the manager of the all but destroyed Nature Nook, hugged her co-workers and cried.
"I knew it was destroyed, but seeing it was very shocking, very painful," she said between sobs. "The Nature Nook was a very special place. Children loved it."
Krishnamoorthy was not ready to talk about rebuilding the business. "Right now, I just have to go," she said. "I need a holiday."
Jack Sirop, who lives in one of the damaged apartments next to Nature Nook, said he was asleep when the fire broke out and woke up because of the heat.
"I woke up sweating," he said. After checking the thermostat, he decided to go to Main Street Blues for a bite to eat. He was studying the menu when the chef yelled at him to get out.
Yesterday morning, he was remembering everything he had lost in the fire.
"I had my own [carpet cleaning] business, and I lost all my tax forms," he said. He also lamented the losses of a $400 hat and a $300 pair of boots.
A neighbor, Victoria Morehead, tried to reassure him.
"I don't think your place is toast," she said. "It's not toast at all."