Apparent arson at former hospital

Henryton complex called `needless endangerment' after years of fires

December 20, 2007|By Ellie Baublitz | Ellie Baublitz,Sun reporter

A two-alarm fire yesterday at an abandoned hospital in Carroll County is the latest in a series of arsons at the state-owned complex, officials said as they called for the buildings there to be repaired or razed.

The fire yesterday was the largest in recent memory at the 53-acre Henryton Hospital, overlooking the Patapsco River near Sykesville, said Bill Rehkopf, spokesman for the Sykesville-Freedom District Fire Department. The cause is being investigated, but the state fire marshal's office preliminarily ruled that the fire had been set.

About two years ago, a garage on the property burned down, one of perhaps a half-dozen fires there in the past three or four years, Rehkopf said. He described the complex as "a needless endangerment to people."

"It's a big problem for us," he said. "We've tried to get the state to do something. We know that complex very well, and this fire does not mean the end of the fires."

Firefighters were called to the complex about 4:15 a.m. yesterday. The theater inside the main hospital building was on fire, and the roof and floors had collapsed, Rehkopf said.

About 80 firefighters from Carroll, Baltimore and Howard counties battled the fire, which was brought under control by 8 a.m. There were no reports of injuries.

Deputy Fire Marshal Bruce Bouch said the walls of the burned building are in danger of collapsing. He echoed Rehkopf's concerns about the complex's 19 buildings, which have been abandoned for more than 20 years. Bouch said fire officials are seeking to block access to the property, which is a frequent target of graffiti and other vandalism.

Bouch said he was unnerved as he surveyed the buildings after the fire.

"I was going through all those buildings, and it was really scary. If I hadn't had a flashlight, I could have gone through a hole in the floor in several places," he said.

The Henryton complex opened in 1923 as a tuberculosis hospital for African-Americans. In 1962, it became a facility for the developmentally disabled. It closed in 1985, said John Hammond, a spokesman for the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Once a facility is closed, it is declared excess property and designated for possible sale. If it doesn't sell, it is given to the state Department of General Services.

Ian Tinsdale, public affairs specialist for the Department of General Services, said the state is awaiting a new appraisal and hopes to sell the property. The state's real estate section told him that yesterday's fire might not affect the property's value, considering its condition.

The property has been on the market at least three times since 1992, according to a 2004 article in The Sun. Carroll County officials considered buying the complex, until too many problems were found with the buildings.

"There was asbestos and things - too many concerns and too many issues," said Vivian Laxton, Carroll County public information officer.

There has also been vandalism over the years.

"There are holes in some areas of the floors, stairways are missing railings, and it's a danger to whoever is in there or to the firefighters," Bouch said.

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