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Cause of fire at retreat center undetermined

June 22, 2006|by PEPPER BALLARD

HAGERSTOWN

The cause of a two-alarm fire at Shiloh Conference and Retreat Center - the former Hagerstown YMCA - remained under investigation Wednesday night, according to Hagerstown Fire Department Chief Gary Hawbaker.

The fire in the four-story brick building at 149 N. Potomac St. began on the second floor about 2:53 a.m., Hawbaker said. Firefighters left the scene about 10 a.m., he said.

The building's owner, Ray Hope, was the only person in the building, and escaped when he smelled smoke, he said.

"I smelled the smoke, called 911," Hope said. "The alarm had already gone off."

Nancy Holmes, manager of the building, said she was in Elkton, Md., but came out to the scene of the fire out of concern for Hope.

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Shiloh Conference and Retreat Center is a Christian retreat center, which normally hosts church groups over the weekends. The facility includes a pool, rock walls and putting greens, Holmes said. A group was scheduled to come this weekend, she said.

Hawbaker said Wednesday night he was not sure whether Hope lived in the building.

"He was staying there at the time of the fire, but whether he lives there, I do not know," Hawbaker said.

More than three hours after the fire broke out, Hope and Holmes stood at the corner of North Potomac Street opposite the building and watched as firefighters knocked glass from the second-story windows and climbed up and down ladders extended to the front and side of the building.

Shattered glass covered the sidewalk of West Church Street, off the side of the building. Some firefighters - of the between 50 and 60 who responded - took breaks, sitting on the stone wall of Zion United Church of Christ or on the bumpers of rescue vehicles, parked awkwardly in the intersection and in front of the building.

Hagerstown Police Department Sgt. Fred Wolford said traffic Wednesday morning was rerouted around the first block of West Church Street and the 200 block of North Potomac Street, which were blocked off.

Hawbaker said when firefighters first arrived, "We had flames out of the second-story windows."

He said firefighters had difficulty reaching the fire itself because of the layout of the building.

"We got the fire knocked down early, but we had void spaces - two or three different spaces," Hawbaker said. He explained that void spaces are between a ceiling and a floor "where fire likes to go."

"It got into the walls. It got into the floors," Hawbaker said. "We had to pull the floors and the ceilings."

Hawbaker said Wednesday he did not know how much damages to the building would cost to repair.

The former Hagerstown YMCA building was sold to Shiloh Ministries of Hagerstown for $500,000, The Herald-Mail reported in January 2002.

The building, erected in 1920, was for sale because the YMCA in December 2001 moved out of the downtown location and into the Richard A. Henson Family YMCA on Eastern Boulevard, which was an $8.4 million building.

The basement of the building flooded in February 2002 with water from a pool in the building, which poured about 60,000 gallons of water into the basement, according to published reports.

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