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Boonsboro blaze caused by propane tank

Fire destroys hotel owned by Nora Roberts, causes $1.5 million to $2 million in damage to downtown

Fire destroys hotel owned by Nora Roberts, causes $1.5 million to $2 million in damage to downtown

February 22, 2008|By ERIN JULIUS and ERIN CUNNINGHAM

BOONSBORO -- A four-alarm fire Friday morning caused about $2 million in damage to seven buildings, including the historic Boone Hotel, in the first block of North Main Street in Boonsboro.

Three families were displaced, but no one was injured in the fire that was reported at 7:42 a.m. Friday.

The accidental fire originated in the first floor of the Boone Hotel, which was "basically just four walls left standing," after fire tore through it, Capt. Keith Abrecht of the First Hose Co. of Boonsboro said.

A 100-gallon liquid propane tank was damaged when it was knocked over by construction workers in the Boone Hotel Friday morning, Deputy Chief State Fire Marshal Jason M. Mowbray said.

The tank was connected to a portable heater that was on at the time, according to a news release. The propane that was released into the building ignited, Mowbray said. Witnesses might have heard explosions or "swooshing" sounds as a result of the ignition, he said.

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Mowbray estimated the damage between $1.5 million and $2 million.

Author and longtime Washington County resident Nora Roberts and her husband, Bruce Wilder, own the hotel that was in the midst of renovations. The couple planned to reopen the hotel as an inn.

Wilder called the fire "devastating."

"I really feel bad for the town," he said.

The inn was scheduled to open in June, and renovations were "pretty far along," he said.

Three other buildings, 3, 5 and 7 N. Main St. were severely damaged, fire officials said. A Subway restaurant and a residential building sustained smoke and heat damage.

About 130 firefighters from Washington County, Frederick County, Md., Jefferson County, W.Va., and Loudoun County, Va., spent an hour and a half knocking down the flames. Firefighters were on-scene well into the evening.

Steven Rycyk first heard an explosion, then heard sirens.

"I saw flames coming, wrapping around the top of the building next to me," said Rycyk, of 13 N. Main St.

Rycyk ran to the front of his building, where he heard a neighbor crying hysterically on her telephone and saw flames reflected in the windows of businesses across the street, he said. Rycyk collected some of his personal belongings and evacuated under the direction of firefighters, he said.

"My building would have been next to go up in flames," he said.

Rycyk's neighbor, Nora Beall, had been sleeping when firefighters started banging on her window, she said Friday afternoon.

"My place was filling up with smoke," said Beall, who couldn't find one of her cats after the fire.

She grabbed photos of her daughter and family before evacuating, Beall said.

Rycyk said Friday afternoon he had returned to his home, and most of his belongings were unharmed.

Susan Brubaker was working at Classic Fuels on Md. 65 when a friend called to tell her about the fire. Brubaker, of 9 N. Main St., lost everything, she said.

"It's terrible to see all your stuff gone," she said.

The upper floor of Brubaker's building was heavily damaged, Abrecht said.

Boonsboro authorities had long been concerned about fire in the first block of North Main Street because many of the buildings shared one roof, Abrecht said Friday afternoon.

The "common attic" ran from one building to the next without a fire stop, which gives fires a chance to run across building to building, Boonsboro Chief Oley Griffith said Friday evening.

By 9:15 a.m., most flames were knocked down but heavy smoke billowed from the shell of the hotel as firefighters continued to douse the wreckage with water.

Dozens of Boonsboro residents lined the streets behind yellow caution tape Friday morning, some taking photographs or shooting video. Camera crews and photographers from local and Baltimore media outlets scrambled around fire hoses to film what was left of the hotel.

Heat and flames warped street signs, and melted trash cans could be seen on the street.

John Brucksch of Smithsburg was driving through Boonsboro about 7:30 a.m. on his way to work in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., when he saw smoke billowing out of the historic Boone Hotel. He said he smelled chemicals, or perhaps plastic, burning.

Brucksch said he pulled to the side of the road and called 911, about 7:39 a.m., and believes he was the first to call emergency services.

"At that point, a big fire ball came out of the second-floor building, and that was the first flames that came out of the building," he said.

The fire ball went about 30 feet in the air, he said.

"A ball of fire engulfed our square," Mayor Charles F. "Skip" Kauffman Jr. said Friday afternoon.

Wendy Baer was on her way home from the grocery store Friday morning when she heard three explosions, she said. From about a half-mile away, Baer could see flames reaching higher than trees and could see heavy smoke, she said.

Buildings at 2, 4 and 6 N. Main St., across from Boone Hotel, were damaged by heat. As a safety precaution, firefighters broke out the windows of those buildings Friday morning, because the glass had been cracked from the heat of the fire.

Two apartments on St. Paul Street, which intersects with North Main Street, also were damaged by the fire.

The library and town hall had smoke damage, the mayor said. Officials couldn't determine the full extent of the damage until power was restored, he said.

The fire interrupted power in a five-block area of town, but Allegheny Power workers restored power by 7 p.m. Friday.

At least three families received help from the Washington County Chapter of the American Red Cross, said Mike Mowen, disaster specialist for the chapter. The Red Cross generally provides food, shelter and clothing during emergencies.

The mayor called the firefighters "heroes" and said he was grateful no one was injured in the fire.

"Where do you start to thank all these people?" he said Friday evening as he prepared to return to the scene for cleanup efforts.

Staff writer Erin Cunningham contributed to this story.

Staff member Tim Rowland contributed to this story.


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