Lightning starts fire; building at Sheppard Pratt damaged


Severe thunderstorms moving rapidly across Maryland last night fired off a bolt of lightning that struck the five-story cupola of a Victorian building housing psychiatric patients at Sheppard Pratt Health System in Towson, sparking a four-alarm fire.

One female patient was reported injured during the evacuation of 51 residents and 10 staff members from the historic brick structure on the 110-acre campus off the 6500 block of N. Charles St.

Baltimore County firefighters from as far as Pikesville and Providence fought the blaze for more than an hour but could not save the ornate, 19th- century rooftop section, which collapsed in flames.

Baltimore County Fire Department investigators said the fire was caused by lightning as severe storms crossed Central Maryland for the second night.

The female patient was being treated at neighboring Greater Baltimore Medical Center for what were thought to be minor injuries.

The fire, reported at 7:58 p.m., quickly burned through the cupola atop B Building, which dates to 1891. The cascades of water used to extinguish the flames caused heavy damage to the lower floors of the building, which was being renovated, said Capt. Glenn Blackwell, a Fire Department spokesman.

Blackwell said medical staff members and security officers helped patients from the building. They were sheltered at first in Maryland Transit Administration buses that had been brought to the campus, then moved to nearby hospital buildings as accommodations were prepared.

At the height of the blaze, flames from the burning cupola lighted up the night sky, bringing many spectators to the scene. Police cordoned off roads leading to the hospital.

Two aerial towers parked in front of B Building were used to pour tons of water on the flaming cupola as firefighters on lower floors tried to prevent the fire from spreading to offices and patient rooms.

The fire was declared under control at 9:30 p.m. No estimate of the damage was made immediately.

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. reported that 41,000 customers lost power from last night's storms, mostly because of damage from high winds and lightning. Anne Arundel and Howard counties had the most, with 17,000 and 10,000, respectively. BGE reported that 4,000 lost power in Baltimore County and 3,600 in the city.

The night before, close to 100,000 customers lost power. All but 19,000 had been restored by the time round two of the storms rumbled across the region.

Hundreds of sweaty Anne Arundel County residents who were still without power lined up in a parking lot outside an Annapolis mall yesterday afternoon, awaiting a truck carrying about 20,000 pounds of dry ice.

"I really don't know what good it will do. ... I've given up on the food in my refrigerator," said Joyce Nider, an Odenton resident who had been without power since 5:15 p.m. Tuesday but hoped the dry ice would help salvage some of the food in her freezer.

Some residents won't see their lights back on until tomorrow, said BGE officials, who added that 400 BGE employees and 500 contract workers from as far as Georgia were working yesterday to restore service.

Winds of nearly gale force Tuesday night uprooted trees in sections of Crofton and Davidsonville, which appeared to be among the areas hit hardest. Huge branches downed power lines and crushed transformers, leading to the widespread power outages. At the peak, about 100,000 Baltimore-area residents and 140,000 in the Washington area were without power.

"The storm's impact was severe, due mostly to the high winds," said Stephen J. Woerner, manager of electric systems operations and planning for BGE.

No one was seriously injured in Tuesday's storm or the ensuing outages, local public safety officials said. But Anne Arundel firefighters handled 14 automobile accidents and about 20 calls related to downed trees.

About 12,000 students in four public schools in Howard County and 11 in Anne Arundel got an unexpected holiday during the first week of classes when the storm left their buildings without power yesterday.

"It was unfortunate to have it impact so many schools on the second day of school, when kids are trying to get adjusted," said Jane Beckett-Donohue, an Arundel schools spokeswoman.

Sun staff writers Julie Bykowicz, Tricia Bishop and Laura Loh contributed to this article.

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