Downtown high-rise fire may have been accidental


After interviewing about 20 people, Baltimore police arson investigators said yesterday that the fire on Tuesday in a downtown high-rise office building may have been accidentally caused.

"Right now, I can't find a single motive for setting the fire," said Det. John F. Hess of the arson unit. "If there is a motive then it will be interesting to know.

"I don't think it was an arson. I believe it was an accidental fire and whoever did it is afraid to come forward," Detective Hess said.

But arson has not been completely ruled out, he said.

Detective Hess said investigators had interviewed members of a church who were picking up furniture donated by the insurance firm that was moving out of the seventh-floor office where the fire occurred, workers in other offices and employees of the building's management firm.

He said investigators have to talk to "at least three other people before finishing the probe."

Firefighters had to rescue more than two dozen office workers trapped on a fire escape after heavy smoke from the two-alarm fire forced them to flee the 11-story building at 16 S. Calvert St.

The rickety fire escape at the rear of the building would not extend the last 20 feet to the ground, requiring firefighters to coax the workers the rest of the way on a fire truck's aerial ladder.

The fire was confined to the unoccupied seventh-floor office, where some furniture and paper were stored.

Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, a fire department spokesman, said the department's Fire Investigation Bureau determined that the blaze was incendiary in nature but refused to say specifically how it started.

Detective Hess said it was possible that someone dropped a lighted cigarette into a plastic bag that contained paper.

The fire caused about $5,000 in damage. There were no injuries.

Yesterday, members of the Fire Prevention Bureau inspected the building for possible fire code violations, but found "no gross negligence," Chief Torres said.

He said he believes they "may have found a locked door to one of the fire escapes."

Also yesterday, the city Department of Housing and Community Development issued an emergency violation notice, citing the building for its inoperable fire escape, said Zack Germroth, housing department spokesman.

"I think you will find that [violation] will get abated immediately," said Mr. Germroth, who said repairs were being made even before building inspectors arrived.

Lee Papa, commercial property manager for Kenilworth Equities Properties Inc., managing partner of the office building, said repairs would be completed today.

The fire escape was made inoperable by a damaged last rung, which prevented it from being lowered all the way to the ground, Ms. Papa said. The damage was probably caused by a trash truck that struck the fire escape, she said.

She said Kenilworth last inspected the fire escape four months ago and it was working then. "In any building, you have mechanical things and mechanical things do break. When that happens, we fix them right away," she said.

"No one was hurt. There was very little damage. We're glad everyone was OK," Ms. Papa added.

The building at 16 S. Calvert is one of several older downtown buildings managed by Kenilworth for a New York company. Among the others are the 16-story Court Square Building at 200 E. Lexington St. and smaller buildings at 106 and 108 Water St., city records show.

City housing department records show Kenilworth was cited for one minor code violation in the last three years and that it was quickly taken care of, said Mr. Germroth.

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