Barclay fire scorches city, investor plans

Several buildings along one-block are set for demolition


After two years of work, cabdriver Tadesse Tsegaye was about to put the rowhouse he'd spent thousands of dollars renovating on the market.

But yesterday, the three-story house stood charred and uninhabitable. It was one of 17 rowhouses damaged Monday afternoon by a fast moving five-alarm fire, possibly caused by a natural gas explosion. More than 100 firefighters battled for more than an hour before it was brought under control. Two firefighters and an area resident suffered minor injuries.

"I am very, very sick; I spent all my money in this house." said Tsegaye, standing on the debris-strewn sidewalk in front of his house in the 300 block of E. 20th St., in Baltimore's Barclay neighborhood.

Fire Department officials said yesterday that they were investigating the cause of the blaze but confirmed that it started in a vacant house at 316 E. 20th St. and spread to adjoining houses.

Residents said they had often smelled a gas odor near the house, but fire officials said it was too early to say if a gas leak caused the fire.

"Citizens in the neighborhood said they heard a loud explosion followed by fire so we have to consider that there might have been a gas leak," said Kevin Cartwright, a Fire Department spokesman.

BGE is also looking for answers.

The utility received a call Friday from a resident reporting a strong gas odor, but a survey of the area revealed only a small leak in the street area, said BGE spokeswoman Linda Foy. She said that leaks confined to the street are not considered a public safety threat and so no immediate repair was ordered.

Foy said yesterday that there was no reason to connect the explosion and the resulting fire to the gas leak in the street.

Demolition of 10 of the fire-damaged houses was expected to begin as early as last night, said a spokesman for the city housing authority, which has acquired about 300 properties in the neighborhood as part of a revitalization project.

"Our folks are worried about those houses," said housing spokesman David Tillman, noting that some of the burned houses could topple and injure someone. "They will have to come down."

Tillman said the fire could force officials to alter Barclay project plans. Planners had intended to keep the original facades of some rowhouses as a reminder of the neighborhood's architectural history, he said, but some fronts might be beyond repair.

"Now that this has happened, we may need to rethink that," Tillman said.

Residents who returned to the block yesterday to view damage said they still suspect that a gas leak played a role in the blaze. They said the odor of gas was sometimes so strong that it drove them indoors.

"You couldn't sit outside and enjoy the fresh air," said Glenda Mason, 56, who lives on the block.

Mason is one of the few residents left on the block; most were relocated to other apartments as part of the revitalization project. She said she was at her new apartment when she learned of the fire.

"It's a blessing that no one was here," she said, recalling that the block had become home to many children before the families were relocated by the city housing authority, which owns most of the houses.

For Tsegaye, the cabdriver who had banked his financial future on a rowhouse at 338 E. 20th St., yesterday was a bleak day. That's when Tsegaye, a resident of Alexandria, Va., who works in Washington, said he found out about the blaze.

"I had already talked with a real estate agent about selling it or renting it," he said, touring the first floor of the house with his contractor and a workman. "I don't know how much of the work I did here will be covered by insurance."

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