Fires at company's plants raise alarm

Officials examining three blazes this year at Life-Like facilities

April 13, 2005|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

Maurice Brown worked at Life-Like Products' Northwest Baltimore warehouse. But that burned down in January, so the company moved him to its sprawling complex across the city in Brooklyn.

That warehouse burned April 2, so the company assigned Brown to clear the debris and make space for foam coolers. Then, on Monday night, the warehouse next door, where those foam coolers were produced, went up in flames as well.

"Now they'll probably move everyone to unemployment," the 20-year-old said yesterday morning.

Three of Life-Like Products' Baltimore facilities have burned this year, two in spectacular multiple-alarm blazes. Fire officials said yesterday that they are taking a close look at the fires. Investigators said they believe the January fire was an accident.

"Quite often when you have several fires, it raises a little suspicion, but we don't have anything to lead us to believe there's anything going on," said Battalion Commander Charles Feeley of the city fire marshal's office.

Monday night's fire destroyed a warehouse and production facility behind the district courthouse in the 700 block of Patapsco Ave. The foam fueled a raging four-alarm fire that burned out of control for more than four hours, Fire Department officials said.

As firefighters doused singed foam coolers with water yesterday morning, Life-Like employees gathered and investigators sifted through the mangled warehouse seeking clues to the fire's cause.

Along with city police, agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives assisted in the investigation, and a spokeswoman for the agency said it could be a few days before a cause is determined.

Life-Like sells polystyrene foam, consumer and industrial products, and hobby trains and race cars. Its Internet site says it manufactures coolers and custom foam at factories in Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, St. Petersburg, Fla., Waxahachie, Texas, and Rome, Ga.

Founded 73 years ago, part of it was purchased last year for $71 million by American Capital Strategies, which has offices in Bethesda and New York.

Chief Financial Officer Herb Burk said the company employs about 200 people in the Baltimore area. The warehouse and production facility that burned Monday night employed more than 50 people, he said, and those employees are in limbo.

"We're trying to sort this out," Burk said. "We have a few positions available in our other locations. I don't think we accommodate everybody at this point."

The blaze Jan. 14 at Retreat Street and Druid Hill Avenue was ruled an accidental electrical fire, said spokesman Kevin Cartwright of the city Fire Department. The five-alarm blaze was visible from across the city. It destroyed a brownstone warehouse that was built in the 1880s and occupied an entire city block.

The April 2 fire occurred at a Life-Like warehouse at 705 Chesapeake Ave., police said. Investigators have no evidence of wrongdoing in that fire, said Officer Nicole Monroe, a police spokeswoman. It destroyed the inventory but not the warehouse, Burk said.

Monday's fire started about 10:30 p.m. at 711 Chesapeake Ave. Employees ran from the building, part of which collapsed.

Maintenance supervisor Craig Johnson, who works the daytime shift, arrived at the scene yesterday morning to make sure he can remove his toolbox. He feared being let go after the debris is cleared.

"I guess we'll have a couple days work, but I don't know," the 58-year-old said. "I'm going fishing."

Brown, who attempted to put out the January fire before it raged out of control, and his friends Terrell Carter and Deon Queen couldn't believe their bad luck, they said yesterday.

"I'm about to apply to be a firefighter," said Carter, 21. "I've got to do something to pay the bills."

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