WESTMINSTER — The state Fire Marshal's Office said its policy did not require a return visit after finding several code violations in July at the furniture store that sparked Sunday night's West Main Street blaze.
Thefire marshal had cited William Stem, owner of Stem's Used Furniture and Appliances at 16 W. Main St. for several violations, including refinishing furniture in a workroom that was not fireproof, lacked ventilation and had improper storage facilities, Deputy Chief State Fire Marshal Bob Thomas said.
Additionally, Thomas said Stem was ordered to install explosion-proof motors on all power equipment in the shop.
Thomas said Stem was sent a letter July 23 ordering him to stop using the workshop immediately. Stem was instructed to send in a plan to bring the workshop up to code before making repairs, but Thomas said no plan was received.
The fire marshal said because no plan was submitted, his officebelieved Stem was no longer using the work room to strip and refinish furniture.
"We didn't have to follow up after the letter," Thomas said yesterday.
"He was ordered not to do any more (stripping orfinishing) work. The fire marshal has no responsibility once we identify what the problem is and how to correct it" unless another complaint is filed. The spokesman added the state attorney general has saidsuch a policy is legal.
"If we go out today and inspect a building, there's no absolute guarantee we could get back in seven or 10 days," the deputy fire marshal said, noting his department's budget and staffing constraints.
Stem denied he had violated fire regulations, saying he made the needed modifications.
As the fire was burning, he told reporters his workshop had doors and walls that would contain flames for at least an hour. He also said the workshop building tothe rear of the store was one of the few areas still standing.
But Thomas said investigators looking through the rubble found evidencethat not all of the required modifications had been made.
He alsosaid the fire marshal has not decided whether to press charges or collect the $100-per-day-non-compliance fine that could be levied.
The fire marshal first will confer with the attorney general and county state's attorney, Thomas added.
Edward Ulsch, deputy state's attorney, said Tuesday his office had not discussed the case yet with the fire marshal.
Sunday's fire started in Stem's workshop and soon spread to Heagy's Sport Shop in the same building.
Fueled by what Stem estimated as more than 10,000 square feet of furniture, plus stripping and refinishing chemicals and ammunition at Heagy's, the intense blaze burned out of control for more than five hours as about 150 firefighters from three counties battled the flames.
In all, 53 pieces of equipment from 24 fire stations in Carroll, Baltimore, Frederick and Adams County (Pa.) were deployed at the fire scene and filling in at other stations.
Jay S. Nusbaum, chief of the Westminster Volunteer Fire Department, said the fire was the equivalent of a seven-alarm blaze. Five actual alarms were declared, but several extra pieces of equipment were called in, primarily to help shuttle water fromother parts of the city.
Water had to be brought in from other areas of the city's water system because so many pumpers, ladder trucksand ladder towers were trying to douse the blaze, said Nusbaum, who added water pressure was not a problem.
"We were just pulling morewater than what the mains could give us," Nusbaum said, adding a current drought apparently was not a contributing factor.
William S. Mowell, city public works director, said the 12-inch water main serving the area is one of Westminster's largest. He added the city water superintendent was at the fire scene and an extra pump was activated at the water treatment plant to maintain pressure.
Mowell said about 300,000 to 500,000 gallons of water were used to fight the fire.
He added some of the water used to fight the blaze flowed through storm sewers and into the West Branch of the Patapsco -- which the city had been using as a water source because of the drought -- and given some drinking water a smoky taste and odor.
Mowell said Tuesday he hoped to have the problem cleared up shortly.
To help combat the shortage at the fire, tankers and pumpers relayed water from the Cranberry Reservoir and an abandoned well on John Street. At one time during the height of the fire, 10 pumpers and tankers were lined up onDistillery Drive waiting to empty water into one of three portable troughs, each holding from 2,200 to 3,500 gallons.
Nusbaum said such water supply problems are unusual.
He said supply was not a problem, for example, in April at the four-alarm apartment fire several blocks west on Main Street that killed one man.
He added that the quantity of furniture stored in Stem's made for an unusually heavy "fire load."
He said the load was as big as any county fire he could recall since the old Westminster Hardware store burned nearly 10 years ago -- ironically next to the stores that burned Sunday. Nusbaum also said that was the last time he could recall a similar water shortage.
Thomas added it is not unusual for firefighters in smaller towns and cities to truck in water on such intense fires.
Nusbaum said that because of the chemicals in the store and the ammunition in Heagy's, plus the threat of floor and roof collapse, "We went to a strictly outside fire attack" and fought mainly from outside.
Several residents and store owners praised the quick response of firefightersin containing most of the damage.
"I certainly thank the good Lord and the fire companies for the fine job they did," said Shane White, owner of White's Emporium and White's Bicycles, both adjacent to Stem's, and several apartments that suffered some smoke and water damage at 10 W. Main. "There was no breeze, and that was certainly in our favor."
Nusbaum said as many as 60 firefighters from his department responded. Several arrived with the first alarm just before 5 p.m. and stayed through midafternoon Monday, when three companies still were hosing down smoldering debris.
White expressed concern that thefire could hurt retail business just before the busy holiday shopping season and only two weeks before the city's annual Christmas On OldMain Street.
"They were in a strategic part of town," she said. "With the state of the economy, so many of us are struggling. Any business is a draw for the others."
Mayor W. Benjamin Brown said he plans to meet with business owners along that stretch of West Main Street at 9 a.m. Friday at City Hall to assess their needs.
"It's not so much a matter of whether the mayor and the council can use taxpayer funds to help," Brown said, noting grants or low-interest loan programs may be available.
"Many state agencies have made it known to me about their willingness and desire to help."
Related equipment.Heagy's also is the most popular deer checking station in the county. The Loss came at the worst possible time for Heagy's, the most popular deer-checking station in the county.
A Department of Natural Resources official said the agency is making plans for an alternate checking station in Westminster.
Officials from the store repeatedlyhave declined to talk with reporters.
LeRoy Rosenstock, whose family-owned corporation, Rosenstock Realty, owns the building that housed Stem's and Heagy's, referred calls to his attorney, Marc Rasinsky of Westminster.
Last night, Rasinsky said family members have yet to meet to determine the building's future. He said he assumed there was insurance for the building, which was once a sewing factory, but "didn't know for a fact."
Most businesses adjoining Stem's sustained water and smoke damage and were forced to close for at least a day. The Flower Box, which sustained heavy smoke and water damage, has been forced to do business elsewhere.
Manager Bill Frey -- who had a busy day Sunday with a preholiday open house -- said employees are working out of the Stewart N. Dutterer Flower Shop Inc., and "as soonas we think it's safe, we'll reopen."
Champs Restaurant Inc., which sustained water and smoke damage, reopened its bar Monday night and planned to open the restaurant today, said owner David Johansson. Police had evacuated 20 to 30 patrons Sunday night.
Cindy Goodwin, one of the owners of Don's TV located next to Heagy's in a separate, detached building, said she is "partially reopened."
"We're not atfull steam," she said. "Quite miraculously, we had only smoke damage. The fire didn't even blister the side of the building."
Pauline Daniel, whose daughter Pam owns The Downtown Depot, said the store sustained only smoke damage and reopened yesterday.
"We're counting our blessings," she said.
Another blessing was the low injury count. Three firefighters suffered minor injuries -- a cut, a smashed finger and smoke inhalation -- and were treated and released from Carroll County General Hospital.
CCGH was prepared, had the fire caused more injuries, said Gill Chamblin, director of public relations. She said several key staffers were notified of the situation, especially because of the potentially hazardous materials in Stem's; none were called in.
Residents of 19 apartments above Champs, the Depot, White's and the florist were forced out for at least a part of Sunday night. Red Cross and fire officials said few were home when the fire broke out.
Most of the tenants returned to their apartments Monday night after staying with relatives of friends the night before, said Amy Gaver, staff specialist for the American Red Cross.
Gaver said she found shelter for a single woman and her two children at the new Barrel House Homeless Shelter. The woman could not stay in her apartment because her infant had asthma problems and she did not want to risk inhalation of lingering fumes.
The Red Cross, she said, also will pick up the bill of a family, a woman and three children, who stayed in a motel Sunday night.
Ralph P. Green, county chief of permitsand inspections, said he hoped for demolition of the Rosenstock building to begin later this week. He said the last administrative hurdleis to get permission from the city to accept the standing water in the building's basement into the wastewater system.
Green said the building's owner and insurance adjuster would decide on the demolition contractor and police would close part of Main Street if needed.