Fire at Ross' Crab House

Firefighters look into the charred interior of Ross' Crab House, a long-time Dundalk restaurant that caught fire late Sunday night. (Baltimore Sun photo by Barbara Haddock Taylor / September 3, 2012)

Even as the dining room of Ross' Crab House filled up with smoke, Cindy Reidnauer kept a clear head.

Reidnauer oversaw the evacuation Sunday night of six staff members and 15 customers — including a senior citizen confined to a wheelchair — after a two-alarm fire destroyed the popular Dundalk seafood restaurant.

"I yelled, 'Everybody out,'" said Reidnauer, who manages the crab house at 1109 North Point Road. "We had an elderly woman who can't walk and some of our customers pulled together to carry her out. I'm just so grateful that everyone got out safely."

Even the day after the blaze, it was difficult for Reidnauer to grasp how the fire had grown so quickly from undetectable to out of control.

At 7:25 p.m., she said, she went downstairs to retrieve a box of paperwork used in the restaurant's catering business.

"Everything was fine," she said Monday.

"I had no idea that anything was wrong," she continued. "I climbed one flight of stairs and put the box down on a table. It didn't even take a minute. Then the fire alarm went off and when I ran back, I smelled smoke and the basement was engulfed in flames."

Reidnauer and another employee emptied two fire extinguishers on the flames and then called 911.

"This is just devastating," she said. "We have no idea what happened."

Even in the midst of a light rain on Monday, the smell of charred timber spread out from the lot and onto busy North Point Road. Fire hoses snaked over the pavement, orange insulation littered the ground and the restaurant roof was a gaping black hole.

Baltimore County firefighter Brian Williams said that 33 trucks responded to the blaze, which was declared under control at 1:09 a.m. Monday. The cause of the fire, he said, had not been determined.

A firefighter from the Wise Avenue company who was treated at an area hospital for elevated blood pressure and later released was the sole reported injury.

Firefighters remained on the scene into the afternoon on Labor Day to ensure that the last cinders had been extinguished and that the structure was safe.

One item, in particular, got a hard-won smile from restaurant owner Kim Ernst when it was pulled from the wreckage — a needlepoint sampler of a crab in iridescent blue and green that was created for her in 2008 by customer Martha Nestor.

Though the protective glass was cracked, the sampler itself remained intact.

"They found the crab picture," Ernst said, holding up her prize for closer inspection.

"The show of support that we've received from customers and former employees is unbelievable," she said. "They showed up last night at midnight and one in the morning. There were hundreds of people here. I can't tell you how much that means to us."

The restaurant has been serving crab and other seafood dishes since 1960. Among the friends stopping by Monday to offer a consoling hug were George and Tina Reinhardt of Dundalk and their 12-year-old granddaughter, Miranda Combs of Colgate.

The Reinhardts estimate that they patronize Ross' Crab House about 20 times a year, and they've been bringing Miranda since she was a baby.

Visiting the restaurant was a cherished ritual for the girl, beginning when she entered the parking lot and smelled the aroma of cooking crabs to the moment she said good night, after having chatted with every single waiter and hostess on duty.

"I liked walking in that front door, and I liked talking to everyone," Miranda said. "And I liked the soft-shell crabs because you can put the whole thing into your mouth and eat every part of them."

Memories like that reinforce Ernst's determination to rebuild, though she estimates the cost will reach into seven figures.

Not only will the original structure with its cinder-block walls have to be torn down, she said, but none of the $100,000 worth of improvements that she added as recently as February — including new cookers and a freezer — are salvageable.

But as sad and discouraged as Ernst felt on Monday, she said she couldn't imagine not rebuilding. And though she has been approached in the past by other communities urging her to leave Dundalk and move the restaurant farther north, she has always declined.

"I've been working here at this site since I was 13 years old," she said.

"I came to the restaurant every day after school to bread oysters," she said. "This is our family business and this is our family land. Tell people that we'll be back."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

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