A five-alarm blaze tore through a Northwest Baltimore warehouse filled with foam picnic coolers yesterday, destroying a turreted turn-of-the-century building that once powered and stored city cable cars.
The blaze broke out about 12:30 p.m. in the historic Baltimore Traction Co. building, which took up a city block at Druid Hill Avenue and Retreat Street.
Four workers for Life-Like Products, which used the building to store polystyrene coolers, were unloading a tractor-trailer filled with boxes of coolers when one of them saw flames in a storage area.
"I ran back to the truck and said, 'The room's on fire,'" said Maurice Brown, 20. He and his father, also an employee, tried to douse the flames with extinguishers but soon fled.
"We tried," Brown said. "It was too overpowering."
Soon flames roared through the building, and billowing black smoke could be seen from miles away.
The four employees - the only people known to have been in the building - escaped unhurt, and no firefighters were injured, city and company officials said.
But firefighters came close to disaster when the roof of the structure collapsed, officials said.
When they arrived at the scene, about a dozen firefighters entered the building and several others took to the roof. They soon determined that the roof was too weak and were ordered by supervisors to come down, said Division Chief Theodore Saunders of the city fire marshal's office.
"Conditions deteriorated rapidly and almost simultaneously," Saunders said. "The guys inside heard the rumblings and they got out."
"We were lucky today," he added.
The cause of the fire was not immediately determined and neither was the dollar figure for damage, officials said yesterday.
It took about three hours to bring the fire under control, with about 200 firefighters, paramedics, commanders and support staff at the scene. About 60 firetrucks and other apparatus were called to the building, which at 55,000 square feet was about the size of a modern supermarket.
Mayor Martin O'Malley came to the scene in the Penn-North neighborhood, not far from Druid Hill Park and the Maryland Zoo.
"It's sad to see a nice old building be destroyed, but sometimes in the wake of something like this, it can allow for someone to come in and develop the area - and not just a piece of it - but the whole block," O'Malley said. "It's definitely an area we are looking at improving. Some new construction has already begun nearby, it's near the park, and we can certainly do much better than what's here now."
As smoke and flames engulfed the stately, brick-and-brownstone building, dozens of residents from surrounding rowhouses were drawn outside - some out of curiosity, others out of fear that they were not safe in their homes.
"I looked out and saw smoke coming from the big building," said Davone Ellerby, who lives across Druid Hill Avenue. "Then there was this big, loud boom. Something blew up and flames were shooting out the top of the building.
"I started feeling heat here [inside the house], so I told everybody, 'Let's go out back,'" said Ellerby, who was with his mother and cousin.
Beyond the danger of the fire itself, the burning polystyrene did not pose any health hazards for neighbors, Saunders said.
"It's no more toxic than any other combustible material when it burns," he said.
Built between 1889 and 1891, the building still bore the Baltimore Traction Co. sign from the days when it was a car barn and powerhouse for the city's short-lived cable car system. Cables in the basement powered cars that ran on streets from 1891 to 1896, when service was electrified.
Life-Like Products used the building to store its coolers, some emblazoned with Baltimore Ravens and other sports logos, that are made at a plant in Brooklyn and marketed under the name Lifoam, said Herb Bank, chief financial officer.
The company also has operations in California, Texas, Florida, Georgia and Illinois, according to the Life-Like Web site.
Sun staff writers Jill Rosen, Kelly Brewington, Jacques Kelly and Frederick N. Rasmussen contributed to this article.