Downtown stores, workers struggle after fire, flood

Sun Staff

By 12:50 p.m. yesterday, the cash register in Annie Lee's shoe store on Howard Street hadn't rung even one sale.

"I'm ready to close at 1 o'clock," she said. "I cannot stay like this."

Lee was one of many downtown workers who felt the effects of the tunnel fire and water-line break. As utility workers, police and firefighters labored on Howard Street, two large office buildings and several other businesses along the road were shut down.

For lawyer Stan Haynes that meant moving a hearing scheduled for yesterday morning.

"My file is in there, and I can't get to it, so I'm trying to get [the hearing] postponed," said Haynes, as he sat on a bench outside his firm, Semmes, Bowen & Semmes, at Pratt and Howard streets.

Dan Stone, who owns a five-story cast-iron office building across the street, lost water, gas, electric and phone service, and the basement was flooded with 9 feet of water.

"All that equipment was underwater," he said, pointing to telephone and power equipment in the damp, dark basement of his building at 300 W. Pratt St.

Stone noticed the flood outside about 6:30 p.m. Wednesday and cut off the power in his building shortly after that, when water began to seep into the basement. Except for a few hours of sleep he grabbed at the Holiday Inn next door, Stone stayed up most of the night working to get his building up and running again.

He wasn't the only one working through the flood: About 8 p.m. Wednesday, Stone saw a postal worker pushing a cart across drenched Howard Street to collect the mail.

And Ron Furman closed his restaurant, Max's at Camden Yards, because of power outages and murky water but used the perishables to make free lunches for firefighters and other city workers.

Downtown, and Howard Street especially, is taking a huge economic hit from the train fire, said Richard Clinch, director of economics for the Maryland Business Research Partnership, a University of Baltimore think tank.

"You have to worry about Howard Street," he said. "If the damage is big enough, businesses could be closed for months. They suffered through light rail being built and hard economic times already."

Steven Oliver, an account executive for WorldCom Inc. at 250 W. Pratt St., came to work about 7:45 a.m. yesterday after being evacuated the night before.

"Nobody called to say this building wasn't working," said Oliver.

About five of the 60 employees from Oliver's office were allowed upstairs briefly to gather computers and files for their colleagues, who then headed to work in the company's Towson office.

Stephen Hultquist, who works at Vertis Inc., also in that building, said he came to work yesterday morning, "just to stand out here and, if anybody shows up, let them know there's no work today."

But they could have known from looking at a sign on the front door, which read, "Building closed due to power failure."

A similar sign hung on the door of the Bank of America branch at Howard and West Baltimore streets: "Sorry, we are closed due to an emergency. This office will reopen as soon as possible."

Sun staff writer Meredith Cohn contributed to this article.

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