Heat from a pizzeria's brick oven sparked the fire that destroyed two buildings and severely damaged another in a reviving stretch of downtown Mount Airy, the state fire marshal's office said yesterday.
The extent of the destruction may have been worsened by the positioning of electric lines on Main Street, which forced fire trucks to wait while a crew from Allegheny Power came and disconnected the wires.
Deputy Fire Marshal W. Faron Taylor said the fire started early Sunday in Laurienzo's Brick Oven Cafe at 200 S. Main St.
Although the oven was vented, enough heat escaped into the walls of the 1924 building to ignite the frame construction, Taylor said.
"The fire spread into the restaurant and also into the walls, which led to lots of rapid progress, throughout not only that building" but also the neighboring buildings, Taylor said.
Jay Laurienzo, who owns the pizzeria with his brother, Bruce, said the family was gathering yesterday and would issue a statement after meeting with an attorney.
"We're more in the grieving process at this point," he said yesterday afternoon.
Laurienzo said the pizzeria had been open about a year and a half.
He also owned Juliano's, a brick oven pizzeria in Laytonsville, but he said he sold that business last year.
Fire officials estimate damage from the fire could top $4 million. Although five people were sleeping in apartments above the businesses when the buildings caught on fire, none was hurt, Taylor said.
Doug Alexander, a spokesman for the Mount Airy Volunteer Fire Company, said trucks arriving on the scene couldn't get into position immediately because electric, telephone and cable wires crisscross the street overhead.
Bringing steel ladder trucks near them would have posed a serious safety hazard, he said.
Alexander said he couldn't precisely estimate the length of the resulting delay, but said "it was significant."
"Can I say we would have been able to stop it?" Alexander said.
"No, but we would have had a better chance."
The same problem hampered the company's response to a 1982 fire on the street, and Alexander said the fire company will push for the lines to be relocated or run underground.
In all, seven businesses were affected by the fire, including a clothing store, two furniture shops, a salon and day spa, a computer store and Olde Towne Restaurant, a Mount Airy institution.
Many of the businesses were relatively new, reflecting a drive to revitalize the downtown area.
The kitchen area of Laurienzo's was suspected as the source of the fire from the start.
Taylor said the restaurant went through three cords of wood a month and kept the oven lit at all times to maintain the proper temperature.
"Heat from the oven and venting assembly actually got into the walls around it, and inside those walls there was wood framing, and that wood framing ignited," Taylor said.
Mike Harry and Jacob Higgins, teenagers who worked at the pizzeria, told the Frederick News-Post that they closed the restaurant Saturday night and followed normal precautions in closing off the oven.
Dalia Schulman, president of the Mount Airy Main Street Association, said the fire came just as downtown was taking off.
"In the last two years, it's been like an incredible renaissance," she said.
"We got some very cool, very interesting businesses, and we were really starting to get a lot of what we call destination customers coming to see what's new in Mount Airy, and we lost most of them yesterday."
But Schulman said she met yesterday with the owner of one of the destroyed buildings, and he plans to provide temporary accommodations so they can reopen.
Schulman said she's called an emergency meeting of the Main Street association for tonight and plans to carry on with promotional events, such as a historic downtown tour and a fall festival, whether the businesses have been able to reopen by then or not.
"Even if we have to put up tents for them, we'll get them up and get a little cash flow going for them," Schulman said. "Life goes on."