Fire in Annapolis

Five-alarm blaze spreads through Main Street district

Official notes `potential for historical loss'


ANNAPOLIS -- A five-alarm fire ripped through three stores on historic Main Street near City Dock last night, sending smoke billowing over streets filled with holiday shoppers, diners and drinkers.

There were no injuries, and fire investigators said they believed electrical wiring outside the century-old building that houses the Candy Factory started the blaze that jumped to Zachary's Jewelers and Main Street Ice Cream. The roofs of the first two buildings later collapsed.

"This not only has fire damage potential, but potential for historical loss," said Annapolis Fire Department Capt. Joseph F. Martin III. No damage estimate was available last night.

Between 75 and 100 firefighters from Annapolis, Anne Arundel County and the U.S. Naval Academy responded to the alarm that first sounded at 7:51 p.m. Employees and customers in all three buildings were evacuated. Firefighters rushed into Zachary's, then retreated when the roof appeared unstable, fire officials said.

"It's our worst nightmare," said Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer, noting how the fire spread across the roofline of three adjacent buildings. "It's pretty devastating, absolutely."

Moyer said the city recently initiated a program that would allow building owners to borrow money to install fire sprinkler systems. None of the buildings on fire last night has a sprinkler system, she said.

The three wood-frame buildings are connected and stretch from 118-128 Main St. in one of the most festive areas of Annapolis. As midnight approached, they were still burning, and Martin said, "It looks like we're going to be here a while."

Main Street, Green Street and State Circle were blocked off, and Annapolis police provided crowd control. The City Dock's restaurants and bars - generally packed with college students and young professionals Friday nights - were eerily empty at 11:30 p.m.

Still, more than 100 people remained clustered near the scene, as if it were a bonfire on a frigid night. "I'm not sure if people are here for the fire or maybe it's just the people who are here for the normal Friday night activities," said Annapolis police spokesman Kevin Freeman.

The blaze stirred memories of another five-alarm fire that gutted a cluster of century-old buildings steps away at 184-186 Main St. and 5-7 State Circle weeks before Christmas 1997. The fire, which city officials at the time called the worst in the capital city's modern history, caused $3 million in damage.

Last night, the five-alarm fire shot flames from windows, the cornice of a building and rooftops. Smoke billowed overhead, and water streamed down Main Street.

People emerged from homes, shops and restaurants to gather, in winter coats and caps, and watch the intensive firefighting effort. Others observed from nearby Main Street restaurants such as Buddy's Crabs and Ribs and O'Brien's Oyster Bar and Restaurant, which were not evacuated.

At Middleton Tavern, a few doors away at City Dock, waiter Brandon Hardesty, 19, said he had just served an elegant dinner to a party of four when the group jumped up, grabbed a digital video camera and dashed off to witness the fire.

"They just stood up and went to check it out," said Hardesty, who watched over platters of filet mignon and crab-stuffed flounder until the group returned. "They came back and finished up. And I got a good tip."

Firetrucks and hoses filled the popular City Dock area, which was illuminated by flashing lights, and water had accumulated in the area closest to the dock by late evening. Some people were unable to get to their vehicles, and a police officer had to yell at one point for passers-by to stay back.

Even employees like Hardesty were stranded. "I've been off for two hours, but I can't get out of here," the waiter said.

Moyer said she wasn't optimistic about the buildings' fate, noting how much water had been used on them and that the fire had burned for several hours. She took some solace in the fact that the fire hadn't broken out a night earlier, when the area was battered by high winds, which could have spread the fire farther up the block.

"It's scary," said Annapolis resident Michael Shultz, who checked on the fire with his wife, Catherine. She called the fire, which left a gash amid the shops on the red-brick street, "heartbreaking."

Tim Chester, 40, of Annapolis had taken his three children to the candy store when he saw a thick stream of smoke coming from an electrical conduit in a narrow space between the candy store and Zachary's. His children didn't seem to know what to make of all the commotion. Chester said the candy store was the favorite shop of his daughter Liza, 6.

The 1997 blaze was also caused by an electrical malfunction. Fire officials who investigated that fire said it started in the ceiling above the kitchen of the India Palace restaurant, which was located at 186 Main St., a two-story brick building constructed in 1899.

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