Tenants tour sites ravaged by fire, assess damage

Block businesses closed through end of week; workers shore up buildings; cause of Mount Vernon fire likely electrical

  • Baltimore firefighters battle a four-alarm blaze in the city's historic Mount Vernon neighborhood.
Baltimore firefighters battle a four-alarm blaze in the city's… (Tim Swift, The Baltimore…)
December 08, 2010|By Nick Madigan and Liz F. Kay, The Baltimore Sun

Holding a little wooden toy and a pair of computer discs that she had salvaged from her desk, Denise Miller Martin was sobbing, her face lined with tears.

"Your office is gone, Donna — it's burned out," she kept telling Donna Crivello, owner of the Mount Vernon restaurant that bears her given name, now closed in the aftermath of Tuesday's fire.

Martin's revelation came Wednesday after she had inspected the devastated second floor of 800 N. Charles St., which housed both the law firm in which she worked and the offices Crivello shared with her business partner.

"It's OK, honey," Crivello said, patting the arm of the other woman. "It's just records and papers."

Crivello then placed a hardhat on her head and, accompanied by her business partner, Alan Hirsch, went inside to take a tentative walk through her ground-floor restaurant, gazing at the sagging plaster, the firefighters' water still dripping from the ceiling, the desolation.

"So, how does it look — can we open tomorrow?" Hirsch asked, momentarily lighthearted.

The answer, clearly, was no. "It sort of stops you, seeing it like this," said Crivello, who opened Donna's Cafe in 1992 in the 168-year-old building, once a private mansion. "It's just hard to imagine what to do next. We might have more water damage than anything else. It looks like the fire was above us. The whole place is not fried. This is pretty ugly, but it looks as though we can salvage some things."

It remained to be seen whether the building could be saved at all after the five-alarm blaze, which investigators said Wednesday was probably electrical in nature. Structural engineers were due to inspect it later in the day, along with buildings immediately to the north and west, to provide assessments of their integrity.

Frank Dittenhafer, president and co-founder of the architectural firm Murphy & Dittenhafer, which had occupied the penthouse of 800 N. Charles for 20 years, was permitted to climb the stairs as far as his receptionist's foyer — all that was left of that floor.

"It's a total loss," he said. "There's nothing left. There's no roof, and everything is black. The floor is collapsed. There's really no recognizable evidence of anything. It's all charred — gone."

Dittenhafer said that he had transferred the half-dozen people who worked there to the firm's office in York, Pa., and that there was no way of telling if or when they might be able to return to Charles Street. "We had a great space there," he said. "We had skylights and a deck with the most fantastic view of the city you can imagine."

On The Block, site of another five-alarm blaze less than 12 hours before the Mount Vernon fire, city officials said all businesses there would remain closed at least through the end of the week as an investigation into the fire's cause proceeds. Members of Baltimore's urban search-and-response team were busy shoring up the damaged buildings — tearing through what remained of collapsed roofs and floors — so that investigators could get inside.

About 30 agents and other personnel from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were at the scene, along with dogs trained to detect accelerants. Inspectors condemned the vacant 400 E. Baltimore St. building as well as 404 E. Baltimore, which housed the porn shop Gayety Show World. Condemned structures cannot be used until they are repaired and new occupancy permits issued.

In Mount Vernon, crews from a firm of "fire restoration specialists" were busy Wednesday clearing debris and hooking up a temporary electrical system in the Charles Street building so that safety inspectors and structural engineers could see what they were doing.

"It's heart-wrenching," said Carolyn Green, who owns another historic building nearby at 113 W. Monument St., as she watched the activity from behind yellow crime-scene tape. "I'm shocked. I was in D.C. and hadn't heard about this fire. I just wanted some lunch at the Thai restaurant, and this is what I came upon."

Green was referring to My Thai, a restaurant that opened four years ago in the basement level of 800 N. Charles St. and which bore considerable damage. Asked when it might be able to reopen, co-owner Brad Wales said, "I don't have a clue."

Wales' wife, Pui, said she hoped it would be soon. "If they can rebuild, I'd like to reopen," she said. "We really love it here."

Tony Chemmanoor, the owner of Indigma, which occupies space on the floor above My Thai, said he was crushed when he saw the damage, including a ceiling that had collapsed atop the bar. "It's heartbreaking," he said. "We put a lot of money into it. We put our heart and soul into it."

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