Officials continue probe of plant fire


Charred remains continued to smolder yesterday at the Simkins Industries paper recycling plant in Catonsville, more than 14 hours after a fire tore through the historic industrial site in the Patapsco River valley.

Baltimore County fire investigators were trying to determine the cause of the fire, which grew to four alarms about an hour after it began at 8:40 p.m. Monday, said Elise Armacost, a Fire Department spokeswoman.

No one was injured in the blaze that started in a waste paper storage area, fire officials said. About a dozen employees working the evening shift were evacuated safely, company managers said.

Patrick Thomas, 47, of Middle River, heard about the fire hours after it began. But, he said, when he showed up yesterday morning, he was shocked by the devastation.

"I didn't expect anything like this," said Thomas, who has worked for Simkins for more than a decade as a machinist. "There have been fires here before, but they were small. Employees could contain them."

Monday's fire was not the first catastrophe to strike the plant, which was founded by two Scottish merchants as the Thistle Cotton Mill and was operating by 1824, according to county historians.

A flood caused by Hurricane Agnes roared through the valley in June 1972, causing $1 million in damage to the mill, which has been producing paper and cardboard since the late 1920s. A four-alarm fire followed a few months later.

At its peak in the 19th century, the mill produced cotton, silk fabric and thread. It also served as an anchor to Thistle, a community of 30 to 40 houses, many of the older structures built from locally quarried granite.

Fewer than 10 homes remain today, the others having been razed or destroyed by floods and fires. Mill owners let county firefighters burn eight houses for practice in the 1940s.

Fire officials said Monday's blaze started in a building used to store paper materials for recycling and was contained there.

More than 150 firefighters from Baltimore and Howard counties, and Baltimore City battled the fire, which was declared under control about 1 a.m. yesterday, said Armacost.

"This was a particularly difficult fire to contain," she said.

In addition to the large amount of paper, which fueled the flames, firefighters had to shuttle water to the remote site. Firefighters drafted water from the nearby Patapsco River and tapped into a water main on Frederick Road, Armacost said.

The narrow, steep roads to the plant in the 200 block of River Road also made access difficult, she said.

It was unclear yesterday whether the plant would be rebuilt.

"Until we can get in to assess the damage, we don't know what we have," said Dave Pearson, the plant's general manager, as he waited yesterday for insurance adjusters to begin estimating the damage.

About 85 employees work at the plant at the edge of Baltimore and Howard counties.

Although 40,000 tons to 45,000 tons of newsprint and cardboard a year are processed at the plant, Pearson said the impact of the fire on Baltimore-area recycling programs would likely be minimal. Recyclables generally go to brokers before being transported to the plant, he explained.

Edward Jason, 69, of Eldersburg, who has worked in the maintenance department at the plant for nearly 32 years, said he is optimistic the plant will rebound.

Jason remembers the damage from floods in the 1970s and said Monday's fire wasn't nearly as bad.

"I'm going to retire at the end of year, but I hope it's rebuilt especially for the younger ones. Some of them have just purchased homes and have young kids," he said.

"It's been a good product mill," Jason said. "It's held its own."

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