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Dozens of workers flee blaze in downtown office building; Occupants forced to break windows to get to fire escapes


A four-alarm fire blamed by investigators on a faulty air conditioner damaged the top floors of a downtown office building yesterday, forcing frightened workers to flee through smoke-filled stairwells and narrow fire escapes.

The midday blaze that started on the fifth floor of the seven-story Knickerbocker building across from City Hall posed a challenge to firefighters. They had to tackle fire 60 feet above the street while at the same time rush inside and help get people out.

No serious injuries were reported, but occupants told of harrowing flights from the burning structure. The building, completed in 1891 at Guilford Avenue and East Lexington Street, had no smoke alarms or sprinklers, and many said they had no idea anything was wrong until firefighters raced up and down hallways and knocked on doors.

"We never heard a fire alarm," said Alisia Ferguson, a lawyer with an office on the seventh floor. "The smoke was so thick you couldn't breathe in it. God gave me an office with a fire escape. It was a godsend."

Because the building was constructed before modern fire codes went into effect in the early 1970s, its owners are under no legal obligation to install sprinklers or fire alarms, fire officials said. The owner said he had plans to install alarms next month.

The lack of a warning system drew complaints from occupants, some of whom crawled along smoke-filled hallways and others who had to break windows to get to outside fire escapes.

Natacha Brittingham, who was meeting with lawyers, praised an elevator operator who raced through the building and warned people. "The elevator lady was knocking on the doors," Brittingham said. "She just said move, there's smoke in the building."

Maxine Webb, a court reporter, climbed down a fire escape from the sixth floor as firefighters above knocked out windows, sending broken glass raining down around her. "We knew that our lives were in danger, but we managed to get out," she said.

Warren Watson, a filmmaker, broke a window with a fire extinguisher and climbed six stories down a firetruck lad- der, leaving $75,000 worth of camera equipment behind. "I heard someone yell fire and I got out," he said.

The fire was reported shortly before noon and drew 75 firefighters and 15 trucks to narrow streets crowded with downtown workers starting their lunch hour. Hoses stretched for blocks around City Hall and the Circuit Courthouse and police barricaded streets, tying up traffic throughout downtown.

Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres said a window air conditioner in Suite 515, a lawyer's office on the Lexington Street side, sparked the fire and caused an estimated $480,000 in damage.

Fire officials said that the 108-year-old building has no ventilation, making it so hot inside that even in the middle of winter office workers need air conditioning to cool off and to recirculate stale air.

The old-style building made it difficult for firefighters -- two of whom were slightly injured -- to fight the fire. Torres said that unlike modern office structures, the Knickerbocker does not have water valves on each floor. Firefighters had to carry hoses up five flights of stairs and spray water from extended ladders outside.

Added to that were many reports of people trapped, including one man on the sixth floor who refused to climb down a ladder. Firefighters managed to get him to a lower floor, where he inhaled oxygen and waited until the fire was extinguished before leaving.

One of the owners, Vince Caran, whose office is on the seventh floor, said alarms are scheduled to be installed next month when the building's elevators are renovated. "I don't know what I'm going to do now," he said.

The building housed 27 tenants and about 75 people, most of whom work in criminal justice-related fields because of the proximity to the main city courthouse.

Many displaced workers took refuge in City Hall vestibules and conducted what business they could from folders or briefcases grabbed in haste as they ran from the burning building.

"This is devastating," said Cathy Haggerty, executive director of Offender Aid and Restoration of Baltimore Inc., which finds jobs for people recently released from prison.

Her organization's files, computers and phone records were in an office directly below where the fire started.

"I had a client who was talking to a man about a prospective job," Haggerty said. "I could smell the smoke and told him, 'I know you really want a job, but the building is on fire and you have to hang up now.' "

Pub Date: 2/02/99

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