Fire destroys Esskay warehouse; Two teens charged; plant's main building unharmed by flames


A roaring fire that sent black and gray smoke billowing over Baltimore yesterday destroyed a vacant warehouse at the former Esskay plant on the city's east side, drawing complaints that the abandoned meatpacking complex has yet to be torn down.

Flames shot from the roof of the one-story brick structure built in the 1920s as 100 firefighters fought for 90 minutes to contain the blaze. Police said children were seen running from the derelict collection of buildings in Highlandtown shortly before the fire was reported about 1: 45 p.m.

Hundreds of spectators gathered along roads and in an adjacent cemetery to watch. People downtown two miles away could smell the wind-driven smoke. Workers at Johns Hopkins Hospital pulled fire alarms thinking their building was ablaze.

The sprawling main Esskay building in the 3700 block of E. Baltimore St. was not touched by flames. The buildings have been shuttered since 1992. The owner, Smithfield Foods Inc. of Virginia, said the company is preparing to donate the site to the Essex Campus of the Community College of Baltimore County.

About 5: 30 p.m., police arrested two boys, 13 and 16, at an undisclosed location and charged them with setting the fire, said Agent Ragina Cooper, a police spokeswoman.

Cooper said the boys reportedly set the fire while playing with matches. She said the arrests capped an investigation that began when officers received information about possible suspects.

A Fire Department spokesman said several children had been seen running from the complex before the fire was reported.

Cooper said the youths were taken to police headquarters where arson squad detectives charged them as juveniles with malicious burning and trespassing.

It was not known if the boys were released into the custody of their parents or held at a juvenile facility pending a hearing, Cooper said.

From 1920 and through the 1960s, Esskay was the dominant meatpacking company and slaughterhouse in the city. Baltimoreans bought Esskay's best-known items -- Silver Label hams, Ball Park franks and White Rose lard.

"There's a lot of history here, but sometimes you need to get rid of the past to make way for the future," said Lynne Ward, who for 40 years has lived near the plant that employed 1,200 workers in its heyday. "This place should have been torn down years ago."

Her complaints were echoed by a dozen residents who live near the plant. All of them said vagrants cut through chain-link fences to take refuge in the buildings and that children often play in the brick shells.

"This fire was just waiting to happen," said William Almond, 35, who lives near the warehouse. "The whole place is an eyesore."

The fire was reported about 1: 45 p.m. by Alonzo Tyler, a Wells Fargo security guard hired by Smithfield to watch over the site. "When I saw the smoke, I ran and opened the gate and called the Fire Department," he said.

More than 20 fire trucks and engines responded to the four-alarm fire, but firefighters said they had difficulty getting close to the burning building because of narrow streets and surrounding industrial complexes.

Several firetrucks parked in Hebrew Friendship Cemetery, adjacent to the back of the warehouse, and hundreds of feet of hoses wound around gravestones and through back alleys, hooked to hydrants several blocks from the building.

Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres said firefighters brought the fire under control by 3: 15 p.m. He said they had a hard time because they could not get to the flames in the building, which he called unstable and too dangerous for firefighters to enter.

A cause and damage estimate were not available last night.

Aaron Trub, vice president of Smithfield, said yesterday that he is aware of complaints about trespassers, but he said there is little that can be done.

Smithfield bought Esskay for $1.8 million in 1986. It closed the 13.6-acre facility in 1992, noting structural deficiencies. The city had offered to buy the site in return for a pledge by the company to build a new plant, but Smithfield rejected the offer.

Trub said the deal to donate the property to the community college is two months from completion.

"Eventually the entire building will be torn down," he said.

Sun staff writer Richard Irwin contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 1/22/99

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