Businesses face months of closings after fires

Some Mt. Vernon restaurants could reopen in days, while others face months of rebuilding

  • Baltimore firefighters continue to investigate the cause of Monday's five-alarm fire on The Block.
Baltimore firefighters continue to investigate the cause… (Jerry Jackson, Baltimore…)
December 07, 2010|By Julie Scharper and Scott Calvert, The Baltimore Sun

The pair of five-alarm fires that ripped through downtown Baltimore in a 12-hour span left behind charred century-old buildings — and forced business owners in Mount Vernon and The Block to confront closing for days or even months.

A fire across from the historic Mount Vernon Plaza early Tuesday reduced restaurants — including Donna's Cafe, a neighborhood fixture — to sopping, smoldering messes. Shattered attic windows framed views of gray sky, as flames appeared to have consumed the building roof.

The fire forced four other restaurants to close, although some could reopen in coming days.

The double whammy "strikes me as being unprecedented," said Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, an advocacy group. "Other than the 1904 fire, we probably haven't had this back-to-back incidence of fire in downtown in decades. It's tough to deal with this."

Commuters can expect lingering effects of the fires Wednesday morning. Street closings carried out as a result of the fires will remain in effect for the morning rush hour, according to the city's Department of Transportation.

Charles is closed from Centre to Madison streets, while Madison is closed at St. Paul Street, and Cathedral Street is closed at Chase Street. Baltimore Street is off-limits to traffic between Holliday and Gay streets, and Holliday is shut down between Baltimore and Fayette streets.

Only hours before the Mt. Vernon fire, a blaze hit several strip clubs and eateries a mile south in the city's faded adult entertainment district.

Both fires went to five alarms, drawing well over a hundred firefighters as the winter sky filled with spectacular orange flames and thick billowing smoke.

The second fire broke out around 1:30 a.m. at Charles and Madison streets, in the city's cultural district, while firefighters were still at the scene of the fire on The Block. Fire Chief James Clack said the later fire took nearly 12 hours to bring under control, meaning it no longer had the potential to spread.

Fowler praised firefighters for keeping a "terrible 24 hours" from turning even worse. Almost no one was hurt — two firefighters and a civilian suffered minor injuries at the Mount Vernon fire — and the buildings appear to have survived structurally intact, despite signs of significant damage.

But Fowler expressed concern for affected businesses. "Particularly on Charles Street, we lost some good establishments and hope to have them back soon," he said after visiting both fire scenes.

The fires revived a long-standing dispute between the department and the firefighters union. Firefighters Union 734 cited the response of crews from nearby counties as evidence that the department's station closings and other cuts are endangering city residents. A department spokesman called the union complaints overblown and old.

The cause of both fires has yet to be determined.

"We do know [the Mt. Vernon fire] started on a lower floor and went up the building through some pipe chases, got up in the attic space," Clack said. "The guys did a great job, but it was a very tough fire."

The structure at the corner, known as Park Plaza, dates to 1842, according to property records. Offices and restaurants occupy the five floors.

Upper floors of the building are leased by the architecture firm Murphy & Dittenhafer, Zenith Healthcare, Baltimore Education Scholarship Trust, Maryland Capital Management, and management offices for Donna's and the Helmand.

In addition to Donna's, restaurants damaged by the fire or by water include Indigma, My Thai, Thairish and the Helmand.

Donna's co-owner Alan Hirsch estimated it will take four to six months to reopen the cafe, and it appeared My Thai and Indigma also suffered heavy damage. Thairish and the Helmand, received only minor water damage and were expected to reopen in the coming days.

"It's hard to imagine anything is going to open immediately with the scale of the apparent damage both from the fire and water damage," said Kevin O'Keefe, a spokesman for the building's owner.

On Tuesday afternoon, crews shoveled charred debris and soaked piles of ashes. Workers standing in cranes pulled burned wood off windows. At street level, trees were bent over from ice, and icicles dangled from the tattered awning of Indigma, an Indian restaurant.

At The Block, the 400 block of East Baltimore Street remained closed to traffic Tuesday. Late in the morning, firefighters used a ladder truck to inspect rooftops of the affected buildings, which range in height from one to four stories. Records indicate that the buildings date to at least 1904, when the great Baltimore fire toppled most of the buildings on that block.

Clack said that officials from the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were helping investigate the fire because the "the size and the scope of the fire investigation exceeded our resource capacity, the fire was high-profile and was a major disruption."

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