CAMBRIDGE -- From a cramped office on the Eastern Shore, researchers Laura Murray and her husband, Michael Kemp, have spent more than two decades studying the decline of underwater grasses in the Chesapeake Bay and measuring what that means to the health of the estuary.
All their work was lost yesterday in the flash of an early-morning fire that destroyed twin trailers that housed their offices, their computers, their research papers and irreplaceable data.
"I just feel hollow," said Murray, after surveying charred rubble at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental and Estuarine Study. "It's everything you have for a career, based on almost 30 years of work. We have some current projects on laptops, some raw data in notes, but that's it. I don't know how you start over."
Just yesterday, Murray said, a team of research assistants and graduate students were out gathering final data for a project comparing bay water quality in areas with healthy undersea grasses to regions where the delicate plants have disappeared.
Bay grasses are crucial habitat for crabs, small fish and other marine life. They were once so plentiful that boaters routinely complained to natural resources officials that the plants were clogging their propellers. But since 1972, when Tropical Storm Agnes dropped millions of tons of sediment into the bay, the grasses have struggled for life against an increasing tide of pollution and runoff.
Kemp and Murray have spent their careers trying to figure out how to restore the grasses. Murray had planted several grass beds in the Choptank River. She often went out into the river in a small skiff to check on the beds, then logged data on their progress.
Her husband had recently published a paper in a marine science journal showing the bay's historical grass levels and planned to write more.
"These were obviously two key investigators," said Donald F. Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences, which included the trailers. "Michael was anticipating writing some papers that reflected on all of this general knowledge and had extensive notes in there, and that's a setback."
Investigators from the state fire marshal's office have not determined what caused the blaze, which caused an estimated $550,000 in damage at the sprawling Horn Point scientific campus along the Choptank River.
A housekeeper who arrived early for work reported the fire at 3:11 a.m. yesterday. More than 40 firefighters from nine volunteer companies throughout rural Dorchester County brought the blaze under control in about an hour, keeping the flames from reaching a nearby propane tank.
The 25-foot-by-40-foot trailers, meant to be temporary offices and to house computer equipment, had become fixtures since they were installed in the mid-1980s, said laboratory director Michael Roman. With data and backup servers stored in one of the buildings, the researchers never imagined a fire would destroy both trailers, which sat about 10 feet apart.
"As a scientist, you collect data, write it in a notebook, then type it into a computer," Roman said. "There's no question that their research was irreplaceable. It's hard to resurrect."
Unlike other areas of research, where competition to publish the first papers on a discovery can be fierce, the scientists working on bay grasses collaborate often. They have formed a group that meets quarterly and routinely share information via e-mail.
"It's a very small community, and everyone in the bay knows what everyone else is doing," said Bob Orth, a professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.
Kemp was due to return today from a conference in Denmark.
Murray said yesterday that she maintained her composure until making a trans-Atlantic phone call to her husband with the news that their work had been destroyed.