A fire early yesterday destroyed a swath of historic Mount Airy, including seven businesses that residents said had been breathing new life into Main Street.
No one was injured in the three-alarm blaze, fire officials said, but at least four occupants of the apartments above the businesses were evacuated.
Three brick buildings dating to the 1930s are uninhabitable. One building, renovated just two years ago, collapsed into rubble, one building caved in on itself, leaving only its facade, and a third building sustained heavy water and smoke damage, fire officials said.
"To lose a couple of buildings like that in the heart of our downtown is certainly a tragedy," said Mayor Frank Johnson. "The community has been profoundly touched by this."
Firefighters remained on the scene throughout the day and last night looking for hot spots to douse.
As it grew dark last night, some 16 hours after the fire was reported, dozens of people - couples, adults, children and dog walkers - milled about looking at the damage. Many took photos, some with their cell phones, and others used video cameras to record the damage.
Losses were estimated at $4 million, fire officials said.
None of the buildings had sprinklers, but the apartments had working smoke detectors, the officials said. The American Red Cross was providing assistance to the displaced apartment residents.
The fire was reported about 4:15 a.m. in the 200 block of S. Main St., just over the Carroll County line in Frederick County.
At least 200 firefighters from Frederick, Carroll, Howard and Baltimore counties responded.
Last night, fire officials said the cause of the blaze was unknown but firefighter Doug Alexander, a spokesman for the Mount Airy Volunteer Fire Company, said it is believed to have started in a brick-oven pizza restaurant. The blaze is being investigated by the state fire marshal's office.
Alexander said about 100 feet of vacant space to the north of the charred buildings prevented the fire from spreading to the Town Hall, which reopened in February after a renovation.
Fire officials said that there was plenty of water from town hydrants when the fire started. But when the blaze reached multiple alarms, tanker trucks had to pump water from fire hydrants farther away and from several ponds on private properties.
Alexander said people living in apartments above the buildings were asleep when the fire broke out and were led to safety by Mount Airy firefighters, the first responders.
Rob Scranton, whose company renovated what is known as the Bohn Building, said he rushed to the fire about 5 a.m. and stayed there until 3:30 p.m.
"When I got there and saw smoke pouring out, I knew it wasn't good, and I knew it was going to be awful and a pain to clean up," he said. "But at 6 a.m. I never in my wildest dreams thought that the building would be gone."
Onlookers said the Bohn Building's outer wall collapsed after noon and that firefighters demolished the rest because of safety concerns. Scranton vowed to rebuild.
He also had plans to break ground tomorrow on a new building on the vacant lot north of the Bohn Building. Although that plan will be delayed by the cleanup from the fire, he said he is committed to that project.
The mayor said history shows that Mount Airy is resilient: At least four previous fires have destroyed chunks of downtown.
"It's not whether you get knocked down, but whether you get back up," Johnson said. "The thing about Mount Airy is that people will immediately ask, 'What can I do to help?'"
He encouraged donations to the town's family fire fund and efforts to help the affected shop owners get back on their feet.
The businesses affected by the fire were Olde Towne Restaurant, a popular, longtime eatery that acquired new management several months ago; the pizza restaurant and a clothing store in the old Watkins Building; and two furniture shops, a salon and day spa, and a computer store in the Bohn Building.
Last night, yellow caution tape marked the fire scene, stretching from the edge of Town Hall to Olde Towne Restaurant. The smell of the fire lingered on Main Street, part of which was still blocked off.
Mike Eacho, president of the Mount Airy Historical Society, said in a telephone interview that he had been at the fire scene for part of the afternoon, including when the Bohn Building collapsed.
"To watch all of those very historical buildings burn like that was depressing, to say the least," Eacho said. The historical society is housed in a building across the street from the fire.
Some on the street remarked on what a shame the blaze was after efforts had been made to revitalize Main Street.
Residents and business owners had been working hard to attract tourists and local shoppers to Main Street.
A regular event, called Second Saturday, included extended hours for some of the shops. This Saturday, longtime resident Oscar Baker was to give a tour and talk about Main Street.
"The downtown has looked great compared to what it had been in recent years," said Baker, who has lived all of his 85 years in Mount Airy. "We were really on the comeback trail."