Great Bel Air Fire remembered 40 years later

Thursday is the 40th anniversary of an event that has reverberated up and down Main Street in Bel Air to this day.

What some in town still refer to as the Great Bel Air Fire raged for more than four hours on Wednesday morning, Feb. 2, 1972 – Groundhog Day.

The fire resulted in the loss of six businesses and more than $2 million in damage. Miraculously, no one was killed or seriously injured.

The three buildings where the fire was confined, one an imposing three-story structure known as the Vaughn Hotel just north and across Main Street from the Harford County Courthouse, had to be demolished shortly after the fire. Some 255 "men" fought the fire, according to one of the newspaper headlines of the day.

The Aegis edition of Feb. 3, 1972, called the fire the worst in Bel Air's history – the town was incorporated in 1874, became the county seat of Harford County in 1782 and has existed in some form since 1731. There's been no fire in or close to Bel Air since that has matched its intensity or size.

The fire also came at a time when Main Street was starting to make a transition from a traditional small town business and retail center to a more specialty, professional center.

Raced down block

The fire started in the basement of the Red Fox Restaurant on the east side of the first block of South Main Street and quickly raced north down the block, destroying businesses in three adjacent buildings before firefighters contained it. They saved the Boyd and Fulford Drug Store building which was next in the fire's path.

Boyd and Fulford continues to operate 40 years later.

Boyd and Fulford co-owner Marytherese Street says she and her husband, Eugene, woke to the news of the fire that morning and were quite lucky.

Schools were closed that day for snow, she said Monday, so many of the high school teenagers involved with the 11 volunteer fire companies that fought the fire were able to help out.

"The high school kids are what saved us, because they all belonged to the fire company," she said.

Even with the additional help and venting on their roof to deter smoke damage, Boyd and Fulford sustained severe smoke and heat damage and even now is still recovering, Streett joked.

According to the account in The Aegis, the fire started in the Red Fox Restaurant, after a fuel tank in the basement of Bel Air Office Products that was being filled overflowed and the oil was ignited by the gas-fired water heater in the restaurant.

The restaurant, Bel Air Recreation Center, Bel Air Office Products, Main Street Market, Talles Jewelry Store and Smithson's Barber Shop were all destroyed.

Smell of smoke remembered

For Marytherese Streett, the smell of the smoke that day is one of her strongest memories.

"I remember the smell," she said. "I remember it like it was just yesterday."

Both she and Eugene Streett said they remember the firefighters telling them Boyd and Fulford was next and to evacuate the building. It was through that process, however, that the couple got a glimpse of the kindness of people.

"The whole place was filled with smoke," Marytherese Streett said, "but what I remember most is how kind people were."

After they were told they had to leave the building, people came in and started carrying stock out of the business, including merchandise and cash registers. What was left behind was covered with tarps, Eugene Streett said.

Two weeks later, the items started coming back in, he added, and they received every piece of merchandise that left the store that day except for one bottle of Chanel No. 5 perfume.

One of their loyal customers also brought them a $5,000 cashier's check because she wanted Boyd and Fulford to "rise like the phoenix from the ashes," Marytherese Streett said.

Up on the roof

Todd Holden, a reporter and photographer for The Aegis at the time, viewed the fire from a different perspective from behind the lens of his 35 mm camera. Holden was on call for the newspaper and, just three days earlier had covered the fire at Gene's Bar and Grill in Cooptown north of Bel Air, where two teenage girls died. (The latter fire was later ruled arson, and two men were convicted and sent to prison for setting it.)

As he headed toward the fire, Holden, a Bel Air resident, said Monday he at first thought firefighters would contain it fairly quickly. One of the first people he saw at the scene was a volunteer fireman with bandaged hands named Jim Foard who had been injured fighting the Cooptown fire, and that concerned Holden, although Foard was known never to miss a fire call.

Holden said he used a staircase to the alley behind Boyd and Fulford to get onto the roof and took photos of a fireman venting the roof.

"The smoke was just unbelievable," he recalled.

Even from his vantage point on the roof, Holden said, he was susceptible to smoke inhalation and it became hard to breathe with all the smoke and asbestos swirling about in the air.

Hours later, when he left the scene, he reeked of smoke, Holden recalled, and when he finally got home, he had a "terrible headache."

At various times during the fire, he continued, his newspaper colleagues threw up more film to him on the roof and ran the two blocks to The Aegis office on Hays Street to process the pictures he had taken. The paper was scheduled to go to press that morning.

Holden can't remember much more than taking pictures.

"I don't remember a lot of it because you get on automatic pilot," he said. "You just keep shooting pictures."

The aftermath

Following the fire, Talles eventually relocated to Bel Air Plaza on Baltimore Pike, the office products store and barber shop reopened elsewhere downtown. The owners of the Red Fox rebuilt, reopening within months in a new building that today is known as the Main Street Tower Restaurant.

The site of the demolished Vaughn Hotel became a parking area and cut through between Main Street and Burns Alley to the east. The property was recently acquired by the Town of Bel Air along with an adjacent bank building that in 1972 was headquarters of Commercial and Savings Bank. The bank, separated from the hotel building by an alley, survived the fire, but the town intends to raze it in the coming months, using the site for additional parking until a permanent use is found for the property, possibly as town offices.

Because he could see the smoke as he drove into town on Groundhog Day 1972, Holden said, his first inclination had been to head for the alley behind the Red Fox with his camera.

It was there he took a shot of George Kanaras, co-owner of the Red Fox, who had been preparing food for the day when the fire started.

"I'll never forget the look on his face," Holden said. "It was a look of just horror, [a] terrible, terrible expression."

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