Baltimore County firefighters battling a two-alarm fire at the county's sign and signal shop in Cockeysville late last night discovered the body of a shop employee who apparently shot himself to death outside one of the buildings, said a spokesman for the fire department.
The fire caused at least $1 million in damage and affected a large number of employees, many of whom will be transferred to other county shops.
Battalion Chief Patrick Kelly identified the dead employee as Aubrey Wainwright, 35, of Glen Rock, Pa., who had worked for the county for more than five years and was considered by his fellow workers and supervisors as "one of the best employees at the shop."
Cpl. Kevin B. Novak, a spokesman for Baltimore County police, said Mr. Wainwright apparently shot himself in the head with a 9mm semiautomatic handgun that was found in his lap.
The man was found fully clothed in a sitting position outside the door of a shop where the fire reportedly began. His car was parked on a nearby lot.
Battalion Chief Kelly said it appeared the man set the shop on fire before taking his life, but Corporal Novak said the investigation is still open and detectives have not determined who set the blaze.
The chief said the man had been experiencing personal problems that may have led to his setting the fire before killing himself.
"He was a good worker and we don't think the motive had anything to do with his job performance or his relationship with other workers," Battalion Chief Kelly said.
He said the last night-shift worker left about 11 p.m., about 30 minutes before the fire was reported.
The fire, reported at 11:32 p.m. yesterday, went to two alarms at 11:49 p.m. and destroyed much of the sign and signal shop in the 100 block of Alms House Road next to the Deer Tree Apartments and south of the main Cockeysville business district.
The shop manufactures road signs, traffic signals and other roadway devices.
Today, a stress team was to aid employees in dealing with their colleague's death and the loss of the sign shop.
Battalion Chief Kelly said paint, paint thinners, wood and paper products helped feed the fire, which raced through the entire building and broke through the roof.
Smoke, sent hundreds of feet into the air, could be seen for many miles.
Battalion Chief Kelly said the material used to set the fire and its origin were under investigation, but that it appeared the fire started in the sign shop.
At least 100 firefighters manning 40 pieces of equipment from stations at Brooklandville, Texas, Cockeysville, Lutherville, Towson, Jacksonville, Providence and Rockaway Beach brought the fire under control at 3:42 a.m.
No firefighters were injured.
Firefighters from the Texas station, less than two blocks from the shop, reported much of the shop was fully involved in fire when they arrived, leading investigators to believe that a flamable substance was used to start the blaze.
Battalion Chief Kelly said the fire department's hazardous materials unit was on the scene preventing chemicals from the burning sign shop that were carried away by water used to battle the fire from entering the sewer system or streams near the fire site.