Five-alarm fire engulfs Fells Point building, disrupts neighborhood

Officials still investigating what caused four-hour blaze

((Richard Gorelick/Baltimore…)
June 12, 2012|By Scott Dance, Kevin Rector and Colin Campbell, The Baltimore Sun

Firefighters are still investigating the cause of and damage from a five-alarm fire that burned for four hours in a Fells Point building Monday.

Baltimore fire investigators and police arson detectives are working to identify the cause, but fire officials warned it could take some time because the building is large and unsafe. A building inspector was scheduled to visit the site Tuesday to determine if the building should be condemned.

Fire damaged was limited to the four-story, partially vacant building in the 500 block of South Broadway. Nearby buildings received smoke damage, fire officials said.

Fire officials said Tuesday 120 firefighters from Baltimore and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Harford and Howard counties responded to the blaze at the partially vacant building, which housed a grocery market on its first floor.

The fire largely brought the neighborhood to a standstill Monday afternoon, billowing huge clouds of black smoke through the streets, jamming afternoon traffic, knocking out power and disrupting business for dozens of shops and restaurants.

"Customers were coming in more to ask about the fire than to eat," said Andy Cheng, 29, who owns Hungry Andy's Deli on South Broadway, where business was slow all day. "And it made it difficult to deliver with the streets closed; we had to find alternate routes."

Firefighters first received calls about the fire about 1:40 p.m., and saw "plumes of smoke across the skyline" as they approached, fire department spokesman Chief Kevin Cartwright said.

The blaze wasn't brought under control until about 5:45 p.m, and many firefighters continued to hose down the building long after that, Cartwright said.

Smoke poured through much of Fells Point, stinging people's eyes and forcing them to cover their faces with their shirts and other pieces of clothing.

The old construction of the building — with the words "Hecht's Reliable Stores" still etched in its cornice work from decades ago, and which operated as of two years ago as the Family Food Mart — had made the fire harder to fight, Cartwright said.

"You've got the thick, old timber that may be 12 inches by 12 inches in there," he said. "Once that stuff starts burning pretty good, it's going to take a lot to put it out."

Howard J. Shapiro, whose father operated a market in the building in the 1970s and who is now one of a group of people who collectively own the 1920 building, said the history of the structure makes the loss all the worse.

"It's very sad, very upsetting," Shapiro said Monday night. He added that he still had few details as to the damage and the cause. He did not know the name of the grocery market operating there.

Cartwright said it was referred to as the Food Fresh Market, but he could not confirm that.

When firefighters first started to knock down the fire, the roof collapsed and they were forced to evacuate the building. Firefighters battled the blaze in shifts in temperatures approaching 90 degrees and sat in air-conditioned fire vehicles to cool down afterward. Two suffered minor injuries, Cartwright said.

No cause for the fire had been determined as of Monday night, but arson detectives were on the scene, Cartwright said. The fire was contained to the one building, though neighboring businesses and buildings were evacuated when it was at its strongest, Cartwright said.

Cartwright said he did not believe there were any other injuries associated with the fire.

As of Monday evening, power was out from Fleet Street north to Eastern Avenue, between South Broadway and South Wolfe Street, Cartwright said.

Road closures, including along South Broadway, South Register, Fleet Street and Eastern Avenue, interrupted traffic all afternoon, with some streets remaining closed late Monday night.

Strong wind carried the smoke across the city, and many people — including Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake — couldn't stay away, drawn by the spectacle or out of concern for the neighborhood.

Crowds of onlookers jammed sidewalks around the block and peeked out of windows of nearby shops, many taking pictures.

Justin Sewell, a teacher at Randallstown High School who lives two blocks from the fire in the 500 block of South Ann Street, said he was on the rooftop deck of his building when he noticed smoke rising from the rear of the building on South Broadway and firefighters beginning to fill the alley behind it.

He watched firefighters begin to battle the fire until the building's roof collapsed and flames shot out into the sky, he said.

Then he grabbed his passport and his Social Security card and left his building — just in case the fire began to spread, he said.

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