Five-alarm fire damages restaurants near Mount Vernon Place

A five-alarm fire tore through a pair of historic buildings facing Mount Vernon Place early Tuesday, causing heavy damage to restaurants and offices in the heart of the city's cultural district.

The blaze broke out about 1:30 a.m. in the 800 block of Charles Street in a pair of four-story brick buildings that house Donna's Coffee Bar, restaurants Indigma and My Thai, and several offices.

More than 150 firefighters, many of whom had battled a five-alarm fire on The Block earlier in their shift, worked to control the fire.

Swirls of thick smoke were silhouetted against the twinkling holiday lights on the Washington Monument. Shattered glass rained down on the street as firefighters, perched high on ladders, smashed open windows with axes. Flames crackled along the second and fourth floors of the two buildings as window blinds, wooden window casings and papers swirled down to the ground.

It was unclear early Tuesday in which building the fire had originated. The cause of the fire was not known.

Two alarms of fire trucks, engines and other equipment initially arrived at the fire, but three additional alarms were called as the fire raged for more than an two hours.

Police spokesman Chief Kevin Cartwright said that two firefighters suffered minor injuries, were treated at the scene and taken to local hospitals for treatment. One woman suffered minor chest pains and a man had a slight knee injury, he said.

Just before 3 a.m., fire commanders could be heard on a fire scanner announcing that flames had gone through the roof and ordering all firefighters out of the buildings.

"Be aware there are houses across the street," a commander said. "Be sure no embers go over there."

Firefighters stood on the roofs of adjacent buildings across Charles Street, prepared to extinguish flames if heavy winds carried them across the street.

State property records indicate the building on the corner dates to 1900 and is owned by the 800 North Charles Street Limited Partnership. It was assessed at $1.7 million this year. The second building is owned by a Connecticut company, TMDSD Inc., and was recently assessed at just under $400,000. That building was constructed in 1995, according to property records.

Despite being blasted with water for hours, the blaze intensified around 4 a.m., leading commanders to call for a fifth alarm. Crews arrived from as far away as Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties and commanders could be heard radioing directions to firefighters unfamiliar with the downtown area.

The fourth-floor windows of the buildings glowed bright orange and flames shot up from the roofs.

Equipment filled at least six blocks surrounding the Washington Monument, with crews arriving at a steady pace. The hum of big trucks, whine of sirens and crackling radio transmissions could be heard in the Mount Vernon neighborhood throughout the early morning.

As of 6:45 a.m., streets were still closed within at least two blocks of the fire. Drivers should avoid Charles Street, which is closed between Centre and Eager Streets, as well as Cathedral Street -- closed between Eager and Madison -- and Madison Street, which is closed between Park Avenue and St. Paul Street.

The MTA has diverted routes 3, 11, 61, 64 at Charles and Centre streets, according to the MTA website. Buses will resume their regular routes at Chase and Charles. The Hopkins shuttle has been rerouted to the alternate northbound stop, which is at St. Paul Street and East Mount Vernon Place.

The cold temperatures complicated the firefighters' work as water from hoses froze. Thick layers of ice coated that the streets made sidewalks slippery. Fire commanders had been calling for a salt truck since around 2:30 a.m.; it did not appear that one had arrived two hours later. Firefighters tumbled on the slick streets and grabbed the sides of trucks to keep from falling.

As of 6:45 a.m., slippery conditions still were apparent in that area.

Sun reporter Liz F. Kay contributed to this article.

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