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Fatal fire began with a loud pop Young firefighter, just married in July, is killed; 17 injured

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A list in yesterday's Sun of Baltimore firefighters who died in the line of duty failed to include the name of Joseph W. Bayne Sr. Mr. Bayne died in May 1977.

The Sun regrets the error.

Jim Ellis heard a loud pop, and the electricity went off. Baltimore's worst blaze in years had begun -- and by morning a historic building lay in ruins and Fire Department flags were flying at half staimed an old iron foundry in the Clipper Industrial Park, housing artists' studios and small businesses.

Killed in action was 25-year-old Eric D. Schaefer, caught with many of the injured under the rain of tons of granite from the collapsing wall of the 19th-century building.

"Everything happened so fast," said the city fire chief, Herman Williams Jr. "It was a rough night, and I guess, but for the grace of God it could have been worse." He termed the firefighter's death one of a chief's worst nightmares -- a loss that ricochets through the close-knit department.

As artists and other tenants also were taking toll of their losses, investigators were looking for the still-unknown cause of the blaze -- apparently first reported in Mr. Ellis' call to 911, just before he evacuated the Clipper City Rock Gym, where indoor rock-climbing enthusiasts scramble up high walls.

Firefighters began arriving within minutes, and the sounding of additional alarms began. By 9:48 p.m., there were three alarms, along with a request for hazardous-materials experts. The building was already engulfed by flames.

In another seven minutes, fire officials said, the wall of granite fell onto a team of firefighters battling at a doorway to the inferno. They ting open an overhead door when its roof caved in and pushed down the thick stone wall.

Some got out of the way or were lucky. Others vanished in the rain of stone -- and the battle against fire turned to a battle for lives. "They were buried under tons of rubble," Chief Williams said.

Agnes Molloy had rushed to the fire scene from her home on nearby Seneca Street before the wall collapsed.

"The firemen were standing at the front of the building trying to get the door open. Then the center of the roof went and something happened, like an explosion. It blew 10 guys to the ground," she said. "It was like a war zone. It was a fight for the firemen to get the injured ones out and put them on stretchers."

Firefighter Schaefer, a member of the department a little less than 19 months, was dead at the scene. Seven others alongside him were injured.

Three remained hospitalized yesterday at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center in serious condition. They were identified as Stu Curtain, who suffered a broken elbow and inhaled water; Barry Blackmon, with a broken ankle and bruised lung; and Capt. Joseph Lynczynski, a crushed pelvis and broken hand.

Despite the dangers of the profession, deaths in the line of duty have been a rarity for Baltimore's fire department.

The last firefighter lost in the line of duty was Alton Glento Warren, who died on July 19, 1994 -- the result of a blood clot that formed after removal of a cast for a broken ankle suffered more than a month earlier during a blaze in the Cedarcroft neighborhood.

Firefighter Schaefer had transferred on July 28 to a rescue unit, at his request. Among the duties of his unit, Rescue 1, is using a variety of tools and equipment to reach victims.

"He just got married in July. He was just a decent kid, he was just getting started in life," said a firefighter who knew him but asked not to be named. "He was a good kid. He took pride in the job. He wanted to learn."

Chief Williams said explosions of volatile refinishing chemicals and electrical transformers likely caused a gas line to rupture, fueling the blaze and complicating the job of controlling it.

Neighbors, who said their homes still reeked from the fire yesterday, told of flames shooting above treetops amid loud popping sounds. Embers flew onto rooftops of homes two blocks away, leading to fears the blaze would spread.

"We are on the hill, and as far as you could see, it was fire and flaming up," said James Hawes, 52, of the 3400 block of Seneca Street. "Every so often, something would blow up."

About 150 firefighters manning 55 pieces of equipment were called in what came to be the equivalent of nine alarms. Complicating their work was not only the age of the 140-year-old building, but the area's limited road network of narrow streets, officials said.

Hamstrung by an inability to get all the equipment close to the building, firefighters commandeered the Central Light Rail and the adjacent Woodberry station.

"We used the train as a shuttle" to the North Avenue rail station, where ambulances waited, said Chief Williams. The most seriously injured went to the Shock Trauma Center, the others to Mercy Medical Center.

It took four hours to bring the fire under control, said Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, a department spokesman. Yesterday, 14 units doused small fires and assisted weary investigators in sifting through embers and rubble. But officials were unable to determine what caused the blaze and where it started.

The old iron foundry was on the National Register of Historic Places. It dated to the early 1850s, when a colony of stoutly constructed granite and brick buildings rose at Woodberry along the banks of the Jones Falls.

Soon an entire campus filled up with smitheries, boiler shops, iron foundries, machine shops, pattern-making rooms -- even horse stables.

For more than a century there, the Poole and Hunt's Union Works, and its successors, were counted among Baltimore's busiest smokestack industries.

Sooty workers made locomotive parts, and during the Civil War the shops produced cannon balls. The Poole and Hunt furnaces melted the pig iron to cast the 36 columns and their brackets for the U.S. Capitol dome of the 1860s.

But the work there had changed dramatically in recent times.

Tucked at the base of Television Hill, the former industrial beehive had made the transition to artists' studios in the 1970s and '80s. Sculptors and cabinetmakers took to its broad floor spaces, high ceilings and can't-hurt-'em walls.

Throughout yesterday, the artists who worked at the Clipper Industrial Park returned to survey damage.

"This was the SoHo of Baltimore here. The fire took the studios of some of my faculty and alums," said Fred Lazarus, president of the Maryland Institute College of Art, who stood alongside the smoldering embers and comforted local artists and their families.

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