Official: Fire on The Block 'set by human hands'

Investigators have not determined whether it was arson

December 15, 2010|By Julie Scharper, The Baltimore Sun

The fire that ravaged The Block, destroying four buildings in the city's storied adult entertainment district last week, was "set by human hands," authorities said Wednesday.

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has classified the fire as "incendiary," or ignited by a person. Officials suspect arson, according to sources familiar with the investigation.

The five-alarm fire is believed to have started in a video peepshow enclosure — Yellow Booth No. 8 — at the Gayety Show World Book Store, one of several adult businesses in the century-old building at 404 E. Baltimore St.

It is thought that the Dec. 6 fire was set by an individual who was allowed to enter or slipped in through a back door, perhaps seeking refuge from the cold, sources said.

Officials declined Wednesday to confirm those details. Fire Chief Kevin Cartwright, a department spokesman, declined to say whether an arson investigation was under way.

Authorities said they had determined the origin of the fire and the spot where it began, but — citing the continuing investigation — provided few specifics.

"It was set by human hands," said Deputy Fire Chief Raymond C. O'Brocki III, the city fire marshal. "What's not determined is the intent of the person."

More than 90 investigators from the ATF, the city and state fire marshal's offices, and city police have assisted with the investigation, interviewing scores of witnesses and leading accelerant-sniffing dogs through the charred shells of four buildings. Officials would not say whether they found accelerants.

ATF Assistant Special Agent Sheree Mixell said the first phase of the investigation is now complete.

"We are still vehemently working" to determine the identity of the person who started the blaze, Mixell said.

The ATF announced a $5,000 reward for more information.

Officials said the fire on The Block was not related to the five-alarm blaze that broke out hours later less than a mile away in Mount Vernon. That fire is believed to have been caused by an electrical malfunction in a restaurant in the 800 block of N. Charles St.

Asked whether there was a connection between the fire on The Block and the weekend shooting death of a 25-year-old woman who danced at Club Pussycat, Mixell said: "I don't have any information on that."

The building at 404 E. Baltimore St. housed the Gayety Show World Book Store and two strip clubs: the Blue Mirror Cabaret and the Plaza Saloon. The fire spread quickly from the bookstore — which offered video viewing booths and peddled adult toys and pornographic books and videos — to the other establishments.

The afternoon fire forced the evacuation of more than 2,000 city workers and snarled downtown traffic for hours. More than 150 firefighters battled the flames for four hours.

According to land and city liquor board records, the building at 404 E. Baltimore St. and the bookstore are owned by Larry Hanover, a longtime property owner on The Block and the son of the late boxing promoter Eli Hanover.

The Plaza Salooon is owned by Jules Gordon, who has owned businesses on The Block for at least a decade. The Blue Mirror Cabaret, which opened last month, is owned by Joseph E. "Jeff" Jones.

Jones, who was in the basement of his club when the fire began, said the smoke was thick and acrid.

"It smelled like burning plastic, which is hardly surprising, given the nature of the merchandise in the building," said Jones.

Crews were sweeping charred wood and ashes Wednesday in front of 404 E. Baltimore St. The building was condemned after suffering an estimated $2 million to $3 million in damage.

On Wednesday, authorities removed police tape that had cordoned off The Block since the fire. Most of the businesses that were not damaged in the fire have reopened.

Mangled metal from the burned building rested along an outside wall Wednesday morning. Contractors were beginning the work of stabilizing the burned buildings and determining whether they were structurally sound.

Baltimore Sun reporters Peter Hermann and Jessica Anderson and researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

twitter.com/juliemore

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