CAMBRIDGE -- A seven-alarm fire spewed flames and smoke that were visible for miles yesterday, gutting two antiques stores and damaging two other commercial buildings that were key elements in this Eastern Shore city's revitalized downtown business district.
About 225 firefighters from a dozen volunteer companies throughout the Shore struggled to contain the blaze, which was whipped by gusty winds that showered firefighters and onlookers with light snow.
Witnesses who reported the fire about 11 a.m. told police and fire officials that it apparently began in the rear of two buildings in the 400 block of Race St., which housed antiques stores.
Early in the afternoon, five ladder trucks nearly surrounded the storefront buildings, dousing the roofs as flames roared into the sky, threatening adjacent structures. Five firefighters were treated at hospitals, officials said.
"We might have had a few of this size over the years, but not many this big," said Capt. Calvin Stack, a 40-year veteran of the Cambridge fire department. "That's a major fire in anybody's book." The fire was declared under control at 4:30 p.m.
Deputy State Fire Marshal Joe Curolo estimated the damage at at least $1 million. Officials said the cause was unclear.
As civilians began calling 911 operators, a police officer on foot patrol also reported the fire, said Lt. Wayne Bromwell, a spokesman for Cambridge police.
"The first fire units were here within a few minutes, but with flames already coming through the roof, there's only so much they can do," Bromwell said. "At that point, you do what you can to preserve nearby buildings."
Dennis Napolitan, an antiques dealer who lost all his stock, had planned to take the day off when friends in other downtown businesses called to tell him of the fire. As soon as he arrived, he dashed across the street into his shop, rescuing his dog, a shepherd mix named Buddy.
"I don't know what I was thinking," Napolitan said. "He was cowering on the floor; he couldn't breathe. I just grabbed him and ran out the back door."
Jamie Monroe, who runs a florist shop across Race Street from the fire, said she called 911 and ran to the storefront when she saw smoke and flames. "I had a fire extinguisher in my hand; I don't know what I was going to do with that," said Monroe.
Liddy Garcia-Bunuel, the city's Main Street coordinator who has led the way in revitalizing the business district, said it appeared that a new fire wall installed by developer Brett Summers might have saved one renovated building that contains seven second-floor apartments and has space below that is designed to accommodate a restaurant.
"We're not going to really know how much damage there is from smoke and water until we can get in and take a look," said Garcia-Bunuel, whose office is on the second floor of Summers' building. "I lost a lot of paperwork, but a police officer ran inside and got my computer hard drive."
Among the 225 firefighters were volunteers from Dorchester, Talbot, Wicomico and Caroline counties.