Rains burden roofs, streets

Buildings give way

few hurt in collapses

9 injured at Lanham toy store

Roads awash, power lost

high winds expected next

February 23, 2003|By Gail Gibson, Stephen Kiehl and Alec MacGillis | Gail Gibson, Stephen Kiehl and Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

Prolonging Maryland's weather woes, heavy rains combined yesterday with last week's record snowfall to collapse roofs, flood basements and roads, and force the evacuation of dozens of businesses.

The flooding - brought on by melting snow and more than 2.5 inches of rain in two days - closed some area roads. Most streams and rivers held their banks, though, even in Western Maryland where the snow was deepest.

In Baltimore, the pre-emptive clearing of storm drains helped limit the number of streets with high water to 90. By 3 p.m. yesterday, 290 residents had reported flooded basements to the city, officials said.

The rash of collapsing roofs, mostly at commercial buildings, came with less warning.

In the most serious incident, about two-thirds of the roof of a Toys "R" Us store on Route 450 in Lanham, Prince George's County, came crashing down at 11:30 a.m., sending about 35 employees and customers fleeing for the exits. Nine people, including a 3-year-old boy, were treated for minor injuries at Washington-area hospitals.

For several hours, authorities feared that people might have been trapped in the rubble, a concern heightened when a rescue dog indicated that there might be someone inside. Further searches with dogs and thermal imaging devices indicated no humans, and workers went home for the night at 7 p.m. The police received no calls about missing people, and all cars in the store parking lot were accounted for.

Donald M. Smith, 28, of Riverdale had just finished paying for Play-doh, an easel and other gifts for his daughter's third birthday when he heard crumbling metal.

"I just saw the roof coming to me, and I ran to the exit. It was very chaotic, a lot of people screaming and crying," Smith said.

Clara L. Guyton of Washington was in the middle of the store, shopping for a highchair for her 18-month-old grandson, when she heard a loud roaring sound and saw the roof falling. She and her 7-year-old granddaughter ran to a side exit.

"We looked up, and we could see beams were falling, and we could see the sky. We thought we were going to die," she said.

The collapses and near-collapses of roofs continued throughout the day, as the rain weighted down snow from last week's record-setting storm. Between 1 p.m. Friday and 7 p.m. yesterday, 2.59 inches of rain fell at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Odenton plaza

In Odenton, the roof of a Grand Rental Station store in a shopping plaza in the 1100 block of Annapolis Road collapsed shortly after 10:30 a.m. Three employees had called the fire department to notify it of the weakening roof. The dispatcher told them to leave the building immediately; as they did, the roof collapsed.

Authorities evacuated the rest of the plaza, which includes a SuperFresh grocery store where employees only three days ago had seen water leaking from the roof and heard a popping sound in the walls, resulting in the closing of the plaza that day.

The plaza's owner, Nellis Corp., had a structural engineer inspect the damage Thursday. The engineer determined that it wasn't serious, and the plaza was reopened by Friday.

Capt. Lee Cornwell of the Anne Arundel Fire Department said yesterday that Thursday's evaluation was not necessarily deficient. "We had a tremendous amount of rain," he said. "When it's raining like this, all the snow blocks the drains and there's nowhere for the water to go. It sits there, and it's a lot of weight."

By late afternoon yesterday, fire officials allowed the SuperFresh to reopen, but the other dozen or so stores in the center remained closed.

Roof troubles

Other stores weren't taking chances. In Ellicott City, a Wal-Mart on North Ridge Road was evacuated at 2 p.m. after water leaked through the ceiling. A Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse at Route 40 and Interstate 695 also closed, as did a K-Mart in Glen Burnie, because of a sagging roof.

At 6 p.m., Anne Arundel County fire officials ordered the Annapolis Mall to close because water was leaking in from the roof and the fire alarm system wasn't working. The mall's owner, the Westfield Group, was told that the roof needed to be inspected and the fire alarm system returned to service before the mall could reopen.

Among those to escape injury in collapses were five horses in stables at Trabein Farm on Route 108 in Clarksville. The roof over the large indoor riding arena collapsed at 11 a.m., but the section over the stables held firm, perhaps because it had been cleared of snow.

Firefighters cut a hole in the stable walls to let the horses out to graze. "They're out in their field now, far away from it all," said Kerrie Naecker, the niece of the stable's owner.

In Jessup, part of the roof on a large BakeMark warehouse in the 8400 block of Dorsey Run Road fell in shortly before 1 p.m., said Howard County Fire Lt. Karen Bathras. Five employees escaped unhurt.

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