Ellicott City family seeks meaning amid ruins

November 11, 1999|By Michael Olesker

BY DAWN'S early light, Laurel Thornton stood there on the sidewalk yesterday, on Main Street in Ellicott City, and did not move. Below her, fire officials held people back while investigators moved delicately through burned-out buildings to see what might yet collapse, and everybody wondered what remained of their previous lives.

"My sister," said Thornton, and then she choked a little on the rest of the sentence and the fragments that followed. "She was wiped out. My brother-in-law. The history of Ellicott City."

The sister is Carole Sachs, and the brother-in-law is Bill Sachs, and they own what is left of Spring House Designs near the bottom of the hill on Main Street. Bill painted historical scenes of this Howard County town, which sat in their store when the fire came. He was working in the frame shop at the rear of the store Tuesday afternoon, and Carole was up front with a customer when somebody walked in, calm as could be, and said, Fire.

That was all: Fire, and that inexplicable calm. And then a realization that it had come again to Ellicott City, and to their little store, and to all those who live and work on this crowded old street of cobblestone and charm.

Then all calm went away. People ran past the store's doorway and hollered in: "Fire. You gotta get out." And there were sounds like cannon shots for reasons no one knew: windows blowing out or gas lines erupting.

Carole reached for the cane she uses to help her walk, and Bill grabbed Carole. Outside, they saw flames licking out of window frames from the shops just below them. The street soon filled with firefighters and hoses, and men in uniforms ordering everyone to move out of the area.

It was near midnight when Carole and Bill finally went home. And now, the morning after, here was Carole's sister, Laurel Thornton, waiting for them to come back, and wondering what remained of Spring House Designs.

"They were in business 11 years," she said. "Six days after they first opened, they had a fire. An arsonist, it turned out. Everything was burned but a guardian angel they had hanging in the store. And now this. What can you say about this?"

She gestured down Main Street, where traces of smoke rose from charred buildings and fire hoses snaked along the sidewalks and street. And then Thornton turned, and here came Carole and Bill Sachs, and there were no words to say.

The two sisters looked at each other and shrugged wordlessly, and then they embraced. And then came the Sachs children, Lisa and Michael Thompson, and Eric and Susan Sachs, and there were more embraces that transcended all words of consolation.

"Thank God nobody was hurt," said Bill.

"God, yes," said his daughter Lisa. "When I heard the news yesterday, I'm calling every store on the street, yelling, `Where's my parents, where's my parents?' "

Her eyes filled with tears now, and again her father said thanks that no lives had been lost. This family knows about such things. Late in August, there was heavy rain and flooding behind Lisa's home near here, and her three children -- Ryan, 8, Sarah, 6, and Daniel, 5 -- walked through some of the floodwater, and they contracted the E. coli virus.

All were hospitalized with heavy fevers, and there was bleeding and vomiting, and transfusions, and for a while they thought they were losing Sarah. The little girl finally returned to school this week.

Amid the rubble on Main Street, this is what they talked about yesterday morning: Buildings can be replaced. The things that are sold inside can be replaced, and life will go on again because firefighters did their job, and fought courageously, and no one was lost.

About 8: 30 a.m., a Howard County firefighter walked over to Carole and Bill Sachs, and he led them to their store. They could look through only the front windows -- but at least there were windows. There was water damage inside and some charring -- but it wasn't as bad as the buildings just below them, where merchandise was destroyed and everything was gone.

Bill held his wife's arm. The two of them stood wordlessly for a moment, and then the firefighter gently suggested that they go back up the hill. Investigators were testing structural damage, and there were more shop owners waiting, one by one, to come inspect the remains.

"Friday night," said Bill. His wife nodded her head. The town's Candlelight Music on Main Street was set for tomorrow night, but who had the heart for it now?

"It was gonna be a beautiful thing," said Bill.

"All the decorations were in the shop," said his wife.

And then they were back on the sidewalk with their family, telling them about the damage in the store, telling them it wasn't as bad as some of the other folks' troubles. A sense of perspective, Carole said. Remember the grandchildren. Thank goodness they're all right, and thank goodness the store isn't worse.

And then one of the firefighters was leading another couple away, down the hill toward the Nature Nook store they own below the Sachs' place.

"Jan and Don," said Carole. "They're gonna see it, and it's just awful."

And then the composure Carole had kept all morning, and all her sense of perspective, went away. And she stood there on Main Street and let herself have a little cry.

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