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Boonsboro's day after

Town begins recovery after devastating fire

Town begins recovery after devastating fire

February 24, 2008|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

BOONSBORO - Boonsboro did its best Saturday to bounce back from Friday's fire that singed a downtown block, including a historic hotel that was being renovated.

Volunteers swept up glass shards.

Displaced apartment tenants picked at the remainder of their belongings, figuring out what they'll do next.

Best-selling romance novelist Nora Roberts went ahead with a scheduled meet-the-fans event at her bookstore, across from the former Boone Hotel, which was gutted by fire, but apparently can be salvaged.

Roberts said she and her husband, Bruce Wilder, who live in Keedysville, plan to continue turning the hotel building into an inn.

"When I got the word (Friday) about 6 o'clock or something that we didn't have to raze those walls, that's when I just fell apart," she said. "I wasn't expecting good news."

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Roberts and Wilder bought the former hotel, which is more than 200 years old, so they could turn it into a romance-themed inn by this summer.

Friday morning, a 100-gallon liquid propane tank connected to a portable heater was knocked over by construction workers, triggering a fire that caused an estimated $1.5 million to $2 million in damage to seven downtown buildings on both sides of Main Street, according to the state fire marshal's office.

About 130 firefighters assisted with the four-alarm fire.

Across the street from the hotel building, Crawford's Confectionery was open Saturday and humming with customers talking about the fire, despite sheets of wood replacing glass in the front window frames.

"We got things straightened out," co-owner Evelyn Crawford said.

The task of rebuilding had settled in, along with relief that no one was injured and that the fire didn't spread to other adjacent buildings, including the library and Town Hall.

Town Manager Debra Smith said there was concern that books at the public library would have smoke damage, but they didn't.

A new library branch is expected to open soon off Md. 34.

"We was just lucky (Friday) that things went our way and we got to stop the fire before it took more buildings out," said Oley Griffith, chief of First Hose Company of Boonsboro, who was helping with the cleanup.

Roberts said seven people working in the Boone Hotel building got out unharmed.

Her fans lined up at her Turn the Page bookstore Saturday for a book-signing that had stranger timing than most.

"It breaks my heart," said Mary Ann Payne of Bowie, Md., who was first in line. "She was excited about it."

"She'll go on and it'll be better than ever," said Jennifer Wilson, a fan who drives from the Philadelphia area for each of Roberts' signings.

Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, stopped at the store to pick up the latest book that Roberts wrote under the pen name J.D. Robb. He told her he would help however he could.

"I called Nora (Friday) night," Munson said. "You know what she said? She said, 'We love our little town and we're going to rise out of the ashes.' It was pretty uplifting."

Gov. Martin O'Malley called Boonsboro Mayor Charles F. "Skip" Kauffman Jr. Friday and pledged state assistance.

Smith said officials from various state agencies will be in town Monday to figure out how the state can help.

"It's amazing over the last 24 hours how things have started to come back together," Kauffman said on the sidewalk outside Town Hall. Inside, fans were spinning to blow away the odor of smoke.

On Friday about 7:45 a.m., when Smith saw flames, she and a town clerk started removing historical documents, such as meeting minutes, from Town Hall, which is down the block from the former Boone Hotel.

Soon, "citizens just came pouring into Town Hall" to help, she said Saturday. They scrambled to unplug phones and computers and put electronic items in town vehicles parked outside.

"It was an unbelievable sight," Smith said.

"Right now, Town Hall kind of looks like a tornado went through," she added.

On Kauffman's office desk upstairs were a phone and an unplugged power strip. A June 2, 1997, mayor and town council meeting agenda sat atop a thick stack of papers.

Outside, Main Street was clogged. Kauffman said some motorists were in town for the book-signing, but others were driving by slowly to look at the devastation firsthand.

Marsha Fuller confessed to being a "Looky Lou," as she called it. She and friend Karen Cunningham wanted to see it to believe it.

Cunningham said her grandmother's sister worked at the Boone Hotel, a distinctive landmark while she grew up in Boonsboro.

"It was a gathering place," she said. "It was a tavern."

In the summer, the hotel would hold dances on the front porch, a sight suitable for just sitting and watching.

One man's job was to make sure the brass railings were finely polished, Cunningham said.

Then, there Earl's, a restaurant in the building that now holds the Subway shop, which also was damaged.

"Men would loaf in there, and shoot the breeze, and whatever," she said.

"It's sad, very sad. It's part of our history being destroyed ..." said Brenda L. Sterling of Williamsport, who stopped downtown to take pictures Saturday. "It's more overwhelming when you see it in person than when you see it on the news."

Wilder said about 60 percent of the work on the Boone Hotel building was complete, including most of the framing, all of the structural work and about half of the windows. Plumbing and electrical work were still to come.

"The fact that building is salvageable is a big difference," he said. "At one point, they said, 'Knock it down.'"

"(Friday), just my heart was broken," Roberts said. "I love that building so much. But it's the kind of thing, OK, that you can't make it not happen, so you have to figure out what to do next.

"That was sort of what I concentrated on (Friday). OK, how do we fix it? What do we do? How do we get the town back together?"

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