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Warehouse used by mission burns

December 18, 2004|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - A warehouse used by the Hagerstown Union Rescue Mission to store donated items caught fire Friday afternoon, and thick smoke could be seen billowing from windows of the four-story brick building.

Hagerstown Fire Chief Gary Hawbaker said the fire started in the basement and worked its way up the walls to the different floors.

"It was advanced before we were notified," Hawbaker said.

The call was dispatched shortly before 1 p.m. to the warehouse near the corner of North Prospect and West Franklin streets. The Union Rescue Mission complex at 125 N. Prospect St. consists of several buildings - including a thrift store, homeless shelter and the Trinity Center.

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Just after 2 p.m., Hawbaker said firefighters feared another fire could start under the piles of donated items, many of which appeared to be clothes and household goods.

"These floors are packed 8 feet high and deep," Hawbaker said. "It's causing us some concern as to whether we have another fire or not."

Hawbaker said firefighters would remain at the scene for some time to make sure another fire didn't start.

Union Rescue Mission Executive Director Bruce "Sonny" Shank said the warehouse was filled with items the public had donated, many of which are sent to the mission's three thrift stores - the one at the Hagerstown complex and others in Chambersburg, Pa. and Cove Gap, Pa.

"That's a main source of our income here," Shank said of the thrift stores.

"I'm not sure how it's going to affect us," Shank said. "I'm standing here right now, and I'm thinking where do I go from here?"

Shank said the fire might have started from a short in a space heater that was being used by men working in the basement.

"Hopefully, it was just accidental," Shank said. "I'm hoping the fire was contained to the one end of the building."

Shank said there were a few people sorting clothes on the warehouse's first floor when the fire started. All got out safely, he said.

Dozens of firefighters responded to the blaze, some hosing down the inside of the building and others breaking out windows from the outside. By 3 p.m. firefighters were pulling the charred remains of various items from the burned basement.

Small crowds gathered around the complex watching firefighters tend to the warehouse. Some took pictures and others stopped to ask what happened.

Donald Gary, who was visiting family and friends at the mission, said he noticed thick smoke coming from the warehouse as he was about to turn from an alley across the street onto North Prospect Street.

He said he stopped briefly to look at the building before pulling his car into the parking lot of a convenience store at the corner of North Prospect and West Franklin streets. He then yelled for someone to call for help.

"I knew it wasn't the furnace," he said. "I knew it was something burning because of the way it smelled and looked."

Gary, who used to live at the mission, said watching smoke "pour out of the building" affected him personally.

"I know they are good people," Gary said.

Gary said the mission took him in during rough times and helped him back on his feet.

"They do a lot for people," Gary said. "They did a lot for me. Now I have a home, an automobile, a good job - everything."

"A place like this - you hate to see them get burned up, and you hate to see something happen to them," he said.

Chris Shank, the mission's director of Wildside, an afterschool program for children, said he was in the mission's Trinity Center when the fire started. The Trinity Center is behind the warehouse.

He said he saw smoke coming from the warehouse, also known as the sorting room, while he was leaving the Trinity Center. He said the fire would be detrimental to the mission's services.

"I'm sure the Lord will use it for good," Bruce Shank said. "And the community is always supporting us."

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