A five-alarm blaze, possibly ignited by an explosion, damaged 17 rowhouses and sent heavy black smoke billowing over Baltimore's Barclay neighborhood yesterday.
The fire erupted about 3 p.m. in a vacant rowhouse at 316 E. 20th St. that is owned by the city housing authority. It quickly spread to adjoining units on the block, between Barclay Street and Guilford Avenue. Two firefighters suffered minor injuries and a civilian was taken to a hospital with minor burns, said Kevin Cartwright, a city Fire Department spokesman.
A blast in the vacant house started the blaze, according to several people who said they lived on the block. The third floor of the house was heavily damaged and firefighters continued to shower the unit well after the fire had been contained.
Neighbors say they had complained to BGE of a gas smell in the block late last week. BGE cut off all gas in the area shortly after the fire began, Cartwright said.
BGE and the Fire Department will collaborate today to determine the cause of the fire, Cartwright said.
"I got home last Friday and complained about a gas smell," said Malcon Smith, who lives at 310 E. 20th St. "My wife called BGE, and within a half an hour, the guy came out. He ran the meter and said he didn't get a read. But he said there was a leak in the street and somebody would come back out.
"I don't know what condition my home is in right now. I got three boys, two girls and my wife. This is crazy," Smith said at the scene.
A spokesman for BGE said he was not sure whether the company sent a worker out to that block last week. "But we will be looking into that," Robert Gould said. "It is too premature to point a finger at any cause."
Rachelle Harris, 21, who lives at 308 E. 20th St., said she was at home in her third-floor apartment about 3 p.m. "I was getting ready to come downstairs," she said. "I stood up and the whole house shook."
Harris said she heard a "huge boom" and ran outside and saw bricks falling to the ground. "I saw the front of the house collapse," she said. "And I saw gas escape from the top of the house and then a big ball of fire."
Brian Wingate said he fled from his residence at 318 E. 20th St. when he heard the blast. He said security guards from the nearby city school system headquarters yelled at residents in the block to evacuate.
"It was like an earthquake. Now my whole third floor is gone," Wingate said.
It was the first five-alarm fire in the city this year, Cartwright said. More than 100 firefighters and 40 pieces of apparatus were used to contain the fire, which took more than an hour to bring under control.
As firefighters focused on the property at 316 E. 20th St., another cloud of smoke came from the roof of 342, the last unit at the other end of the block. Cartwright said the fast-moving blaze traveled east through the properties. There was no damage estimate last night, he said.
At one point, the entire block was engulfed in a cloudy haze, seriously reducing visibility for a few minutes. Firefighters battled the blaze from the exterior and did not enter the units until the fire had been contained.
"It seemed like it skipped a couple houses," said Jack Burkit, a retired city employee and former volunteer firefighter who was at the scene. "I saw billowing black smoke when I got here. I stood out here for 15 minutes and watched the three houses they were working on. It seemed like they had it under control. All of a sudden, you see this big mushroom cloud of black smoke."
The city owns 12 of the 17 units on the block and has plans to buy the whole block as part of a redevelopment project, officials said. Mayor Martin O'Malley and representatives from the housing department came to the scene. Housing officials estimated that only three of the 17 units were occupied.
"With the intensity of this fire, it didn't take a lot for it to travel across," Cartwright said. "Once the fire gets up there and beyond that thin barrier of wood [near the roof], it gets to the next barrier of wood and burns that through. With the intensity of that, it just took off."
Dave Tillman, a spokesman for the housing department, said a demolition crew will visit the block of homes today to see if any of the properties need to be torn down.
Asked about the city's plans for the properties, which are part of a revitalization project, O'Malley said they were like "others that the city has recently taken title to in order to get them back on the tax roll and offer development proposals to prospective developers. Some of these were part of that."
Sun reporters Sumathi Reddy, June Arney and Fred Schulte contributed to this article.