ON WEDNESDAY, THE first day after the fire, people gathered in disbelief at the corner of Old Columbia Pike and Main Street in Ellicott City. Then they pulled together to begin restoring their lives.
People clustered in small groups in a tiny park outside the cordoned-off area.
A police officer asked whether there were shop owners in the group and escorted them -- a few at a time -- to their burned buildings at the bottom of the hill.
Carole and Bill Sachs, owners of Spring House Design, sat on a bench and answered questions from reporters about the damage to their store. Their store had been damaged in a fire in 1991 at another location on Main Street.
In the group were Ellicott City activist Sally Bright; former Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker; the Sachses' daughter and son-in-law, Lisa and Michael Thompson; building owner Jackie Everett; and restaurateur Fernand Tersiguel.
They looked shocked. Tersiguel had lost a restaurant, Chez Fernand, in a fire on Main Street 15 years ago -- to the week. He relived that experience Tuesday.
"I want to do something, hold a benefit," he said. "I will check my calendar and get a date."
Within minutes, he'd chosen date for the benefit: Nov. 22 at 4 p.m.
Bright had watched Tuesday's fire from her home on Church Road.
"We could smell smoke all night," she said. "This fire smelled different [than the other] -- it had an acrid chemical smell, not a wood smell."
In 1984, Bright had swept thick white ash and soot off of her car and her porch. This morning, there was no ash -- at least on Church Road.
"Buildings are like people," Bright said, "It's a big loss. Someone called me from New Hampshire, sick to hear about it."
"Our town is on fire," her distant friend had said.
"Ellicott City is everybody's town," Bright added.
Ecker remembers four fires in Ellicott City. "It leaves you with an empty feeling in your stomach," he said.
While reporters interviewed the Sachses, their daughter stood close by. Jackie Everett hugged her and offered her parents space in her building, across the street from their store. Everett owns the Bankers Galleria across from Spring House Design. She operates an ice cream parlor in the building.
On the night of the 1984 fire, her husband was in their building dismantling the marble counters.
Everett knows how hard the Sachses have worked at their business. She consoled their daughter, Lisa. "Out of unfortunate things, blessings can come," she said.
2: 30 p.m.
County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon and his assistant, Karen Knight, walked up Main Street after inspecting the area. Standing nearby, Rich Taylor, vice president of the Ellicott City Business Association, seemed upbeat.
"Looks like all the buildings can be saved," he said.
The upper floors would have to be torn off the most badly damaged building -- the former Rosenstock Department store -- but its first-floor storefronts could be saved, he said. Several people were pulling artwork from Spring House Design and loading it into vans. The Sachses had been told they could salvage merchandise from their store until a crane arrived to demolish the upper floors of the building next door.
Soon a group of 15 to 20 people were helping the Sachses pack their things. John and Shelly Harris from Caplan's Antiques; Phyllis Greenbaum, Tom Pierce, Brian Hulka and Pete Cook from Zip Publishing; Ed Williams from the Ellicott City B&O; Railroad Station Museum; Lori and Steve McDermott from Silver Arrow Fudge Shop; and Frank DiPietro from Mumbles & Squeaks toy store pitched in.
For a moment, Carole trembled as she looked at the inside of her shop. A young girl urged her to sit down and rest while others kept moving, boxing what could be saved.
Lisa Thompson teared up briefly as she picked up two slightly damaged, painted wooden boxes. A family friend had painted the names of her sons, Ryan and Daniel, and their birth dates on the tops. She pulled herself together and kept moving.
"I have to be strong for my parents," she said.
Floodlights illuminated the stucco building on Main Street as a crane with a large bucket gradually tore off pieces of its third floor and dropped the loads into a 30-yard container on the backs of the waiting trucks.
Merchandise from Spring House Design had been wrapped in heavy plastic. The bundles sat on the sidewalk in front of the building.
Columbia resident Mark Gilberto, general manager of Ameriwaste LLC, had arranged to have four drivers, four trucks and eight 30-yard containers available at the site with less than two hours' notice.
Jesse Krauch, Ron Spahn and Dr. Bruce Taylor watched the crane demolish the building owned by Historic Ellicott Properties Inc.
Krauch is the property's manager. Taylor is the principal owner of the corporation. Spahn is its attorney.
"I loved this building," Krauch said, adding that the tenants had loved it, too.
The building, which is built over the Tiber River, is believed to be about 100 years old. During its restoration about 15 years ago, Krauch found 14-inch-thick hickory beams spanning the river. Two of them were burned in Tuesday's fire.
Taylor recalled that his father, Irving -- now 80 and living in California -- had grown up in Ellicott City.
As a child of 6, he was sitting on the steps of the building now occupied by Main Street Blues -- where Tuesday's fire started -- when a box of sparklers ignited in his lap. He was badly burned in the accident, his son said.
Beside the trucks sat cardboard boxes of ham and cheese sandwiches, drinks and fresh coffee for the work crews.
By Thursday morning, Main Street was open for traffic. County officials had established an Ellicott City Is OK information line to spread the news that the town was open for business again.