Owners assess damage after fire

Merchants fear decline in business with loss of anchor at shopping center


March 18, 2003|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

Just before lunch yesterday, Shun Krause stopped spraying air freshener throughout her Chung King Restaurant in Laurel's Maryland City Plaza.

The smoky, charred smell from the fire at the Shoppers Food Warehouse a few doors down Sunday night had dissipated enough to open Chung King -- although customers would have to do without the lunch buffet, and electrical damage had left the specials board a little dimmer than usual.

"This is minor," Krause said as she noted slight water damage on the ceiling. "Amen. Lucky us."

Not everyone in the busy shopping center along Route 198 was so fortunate. The four-alarm fire, which began shortly before 9 p.m. Sunday, raged for more than two hours and caused the grocery store's roof to collapse. No one was injured in the blaze, which severely damaged the Dollar Buys store next to the grocery.

Total Crafts, next to Dollar Buys, sustained smoke and water damage, but fire officials expected that the craft store would be able to reopen.

Anne Arundel County fire investigators were on the scene yesterday, with insurance officials and agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, to determine the cause of the fire and the extent of the damage. Investigators cordoned off the area with yellow police tape. Onlookers stood nearby to watch them work.

Anne Arundel County Fire Department spokesman Capt. Lee Cornwell said investigators won't know the cause or have damage estimates for several days.

"It's too early to tell. We've got to get in there and tear the roof off," he said. Anchored by the food store, the plaza's shops are a mix of chain stores, such as Pier 1 Imports and Advance Auto Parts, and several locally owned businesses.

At Hair and Beauty City, on the other side of Shoppers Food Warehouse from Dollar Buys, owners In Yi and In Bang put cardboard boxes on the floor to absorb water. The sister and brother from Korea closed their shop at 6 p.m. Sunday and were driving home on Route 198 after a meeting in Laurel when they noticed the flames.

Yesterday, as they waited for their insurance adjuster to arrive, the pair took inventory of the damage. The store has more than 200 wigs, and the ones made with human hair may not be salable because of smoke damage.

But the owners' primary worry is that business will decline while the grocery store is closed, because many of the store's customers came in before or after shopping for food.

"I am very worried about Shoppers Food closing. When they will reopen, I'm not sure," In Bang said.

Chung King's lunch crowd was light yesterday, but the owners knew they were fortunate. Twenty years ago, after a coin-operated laundry in the plaza caught fire, the owners had to throw away dishes and even some artwork. Krause and her sister, Lisa Troung, feared it would be much worse last night as they watched the flames engulf the store, then spread rapidly down the strip of stores.

"When I saw the fire next door, on the roof, I prayed to my grand master," said Krause, a devout Buddhist. "Now I know it worked."

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