Smoking cited as cause of Ellicott City fire

Teen restaurant cook calls accidental blaze an `act of God'

November 16, 1999|By Kris Antonelli and Alice Lukens | Kris Antonelli and Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

A 17-year-old restaurant cook whose "careless" smoking was cited yesterday as the cause of last week's devastating fire in historic Ellicott City says the blaze was an "act of God."

"If it was a cigarette, it was an act of God. It was just meant to be," said Matthew Riesner, who worked as a cook at Main Street Blues, where the fire started Nov. 9. "It could have happened to anyone."

The fire destroyed five businesses and four apartments on Main Street, causing $2 million in damage. State fire investigators said it was accidentally caused when the youth went on a "smoke break" behind the restaurant.

Though the manager of one burned-out business denounced the youth's act as "thoughtless" and "careless," many reactions to his role were devoid of anger. His former employer at Main Street Blues said Riesner is a good person and he'd rehire him.

The fire marshal's office also described Riesner's smoking as "careless," but it credited Riesner with cooperating with it and noted that he "alerted three other occupants of the building," enabling them to escape.

"This young man is bearing a tremendous burden," said Deputy Fire Marshal Bob Thomas. "Many times people don't want to come forward and admit their mistakes, but he did, and he should be credited for that."

Riesner seemed tired of talking about the fire and his role when interviewed yesterday afternoon after, his first day of work at the Trolley Stop restaurant in Oella, just across the river from Main Street. He drew on a reporter's notebook to illustrate where he was smoking shortly before the fire began.

Taking a smoke break

Between 2: 30 p.m. and 3 p.m. he sat on metal stairs in the rear of the restaurant smoking a cigarette. He said he was about 10 to 15 feet away from where the restaurant stored its trash. As he smoked, he flicked his ashes in the air. He said he put the cigarette out on the steel steps with his shoe before going back inside.

"I thought it was out," said Riesner, who dropped out of Pikesville High School about two years ago and had worked at Main Street Blues since July 1998.

A short time later, Riesner said, he smelled burning wood and plastic and checked the appliances in the restaurant, the back storage area and the bathroom before running outside. He said the trash, piled in cardboard boxes, was burning, with flames shooting up the wall about 10 to 15 feet.

He said he ran into the bar and screamed to the bartender to call the fire department. Then he ran upstairs to an apartment and banged on the door of an 81-year-old woman. He said Dennis Martin, owner of Main Street Blues, came out of his apartment and they helped her out.

Investigators sifted through the debris and interviewed witnesses, including Riesner, for almost a week to determine the cause of the fire. Finding the cause of the fire came down to two things: the "ignition forces" -- meaning trash -- and interviews with employees who said they often smoked in that area.

He said investigators found cigarette butts and matches in the area.

"The confined area acted as a chimney," Thomas said. The fire quickly spread up the walls of Main Street Blues, and over the roof and attics of adjoining buildings.

Site of other fires

Thomas said the employees told him that two smaller fires occurred in that alleyway over the summer, also caused by cigarettes, and were extinguished by the restaurant's employees. He said the fires were never reported to the county fire department or to the bosses at Main Street Blues.

As Ellicott City building owners and merchants heard the news that the fire was caused by a cigarette, their reactions ranged from anger to sadness, from tired resignation to fear that it could happen again in a historic town with narrow streets and little room for trash storage.

"I was very upset," said Marci Krishnamoorthy, manager of The Nature Nook, which was destroyed and which the elderly owners say they do not plan to rebuild. "It was so senseless. It could so easily have been avoided."

Krishnamoorthy thought of the 81-year-old woman, who lost everything in her apartment above Main Street Blues.

"The picture of her standing there on the street, totally confused and watching her life go up in smoke," she said. "It was a thoughtless, careless act by a young person who didn't know any better, and there were so many lives changed."

Tempered anger

Leslie Mileman, owner of Rugs to Riches, filled for the Christmas season, lost almost everything in the fire. She felt angry when she heard that it was caused by a cigarette -- and even more angry to learn that there had been other fires in that alleyway over the summer. "Obviously they should have had a fire extinguisher sitting right on that deck," she said.

Though Mileman plans to rebuild her store elsewhere on Main Street, she said she doesn't expect to be open again until at least February.

"I will miss the Christmas season," she said. "That's hard."

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