Clean up underway after five-alarm fire

Donna's, My Thai and other business suffer heavy smoke and water damage

(Baltimore Sun photo by Jerry…)
December 07, 2010|By Julie Scharper, The Baltimore Sun

Crews shoveled charred debris and soaked piles of ashes Tuesday afternoon from a pair of historic Mt. Vernon buildings that were badly damaged in a five-alarm fire, the city's second in fewer than 12 hours.

Owners of three restaurants in the brick buildings in the 800 block of North Charles Street said that they could be closed for months for repairs, following the blaze that burned for more than four hours.

Several streets around Mount Vernon Place remained blocked off, a sign that the afternoon commute could be slowed for the second day in a row. A massive fire Monday afternoon in The Block, the city's red-light district, slowed traffic to a crawl.

Workers stood on cranes to pull burned wood from windows from the four-story brick buildings. An orange sign in the window of Donna's Coffee Bar warned people to stay away due to hazardous conditions.

Trees were bent over from ice and icicles dangled from the tattered awning of Indigma, an Indian restaurant.

More than 150 firefighters from Baltimore and the surrounding counties blasted water at the blaze, which fire officials said started on the lower floors of the building and raced up to the attic floors.

Shattered attic windows framed views of gray skies Tuesday afternoon and the roofs of the buildings appeared to have been consumed by the fire.

The blaze, which broke out about 1:30 a.m., caused extensive damage to offices and restaurants in the heart of the city's cultural district.

The owner of Donna's restaurant said it could take months to reopen and it appeared that My Thai and Indigma also suffered heavy damage. Two adjacent restaurants, Thairish and The Helmand, received only minor water damage and were expected to open in the coming days.

More than 150 firefighters, many of whom had battled a five-alarm fire on The Block earlier in their shift, had worked to control the fire.

After the blaze broke out, swirls of thick smoke were silhouetted against the twinkling holiday lights on the Washington Monument. Shattered glass rained down on the street as firefighters, perched high on ladders, smashed windows with axes. Flames crackled along the second and fourth floors of the two buildings as window blinds, wooden window casings and papers swirled down to the ground.

Two alarms of fire trucks, engines and other equipment initially arrived at the fire, but three additional alarms were called as the fire raged for more than two hours.

Despite being blasted with water for hours, the blaze intensified around 4 a.m., leading commanders to call for a fifth alarm. Crews arrived from as far away as Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties and commanders could be heard radioing directions to firefighters unfamiliar with the downtown area.

The fire's source and cause were still unclear Tuesday afternoon.

The cold temperatures complicated the firefighters' work as water from hoses froze. Thick layers of ice that coated the streets made sidewalks slippery. Fire commanders said they'd called for a salt truck around 2:30 a.m. Adrienne Barnes, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore Department of Transportation, said that the request for a salt truck came in at 5:28 a.m., and that one arrived at the scene at 6:45 a.m.

Police spokesman Chief Kevin Cartwright said that two firefighters suffered minor injuries, were treated at the scene and taken to local hospitals. One woman suffered minor chest pains and a man had a slight knee injury, he said.

Another firefighter was later injured slipping on the ice, Cartwright said.

Fire Chief James S. Clack said that a civilian was also injured slipping on the ice. Firefighters were sanding down the pavement along Madison Street this morning.

Asked when the three restaurants affected by the fire would be expected to reopen, Clack said, "it's gonna be a while, much longer than a week or two."

Alan Hirsch, co-owner of Donna's, estimated it will take four to six months to reopen the cafe, but said he'll know more in 48 hours.

State property records indicate the building on the corner dates to 1900 and is owned by the 800 North Charles Street Limited Partnership. It was assessed at $1.7 million this year.

Tuesday morning, Firefighters Union 734 cited the response from nearby counties as evidence that the Fire Department's closures and cuts are endangering citizens.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clark joined the calls for more city assistance. "We join with our fire officers and firefighters in asking our budget chiefs for 'no more rotating closures' in the new year to come," wrote Clark in a statement issued Tuesday. "As the last 24 hours demonstrate, we must find a way to add-back those three closed companies per day, for safety's sake."

But Chief Kevin Cartwright, a spokesman for the Fire Department, shot back this morning, calling the union complaints overblown and old. "Response time had nothing to do with anything that happened last night," he said.

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