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Authorities investigating cause and structural stability of building fire on W. Antietam St.

Blaze consumes top two floors of vacant five-story downtown structure

February 08, 2013|By CALEB CALHOUN and C.J. LOVELACE | caleb.calhoun@herald-mail.com; c.j.lovelace@herald-mail.com
  • Flames shoot through a five-story building at 21 W. Antietam St. in Hagerstown early Friday morning. The vacant building caught fire late Thursday night.
Kevin G. Gilbert, Chief Photographer

HAGERSTOWN — Authorities worked Friday to determine the structural stability of a five-story building in downtown Hagerstown that was ravaged by a two-alarm fire late Thursday night into Friday morning, a city fire marshal said.

Hagerstown Fire Marshal Doug DeHaven said fire consumed much of the fourth and fifth floors of the 21 W. Antietam St. building, which has been vacant for years.

At the scene Friday afternoon, DeHaven said city building code officials were inspecting the charred structure to see if it was safe to re-enter for further investigation.

“I’m waiting to hear what they’re going to say,” he said. “As far as (the fire department), we’re done for the day. We’re about to oversee the building being secured up at the street level. All the fire department units have left.”

As of about 2:30 p.m. Friday, West Antietam Street between Summit Avenue and South Potomac Street was closed to thru-traffic, and will remain closed “for an undetermined about of time due to the instability of the structure ... as a result of the fire,” according to an email from Washington County Emergency Services personnel.

“The city is probably going to keep that road closed for about a week,” Mayor David S. Gysberts said Friday evening. Structural engineers had looked at the building and determined the roof was unstable could pose a public safety hazard, he said.

That work could begin Saturday when a contractor arrives, Gysberts said.

“I don’t think they’re going to demolish the whole building,” Gysberts said, but the roof and portions of the upper floors might have to be removed.

Yellow caution tape cordoned off the street and sidewalks in front of the building as city workers were seen securing the front door about 3:30 p.m.

Motorists can still access the West Antietam Street public parking lot from Summit Avenue, but the road is blocked to all right-turning traffic from South Potomac Street.

No injuries were reported in the incident, but the cause of the blaze and estimated amount of damages are still undetermined, DeHaven said.

“We were able to get in and do an initial evaluation, but we’ve got a lot of people to interview yet,” he said. “It’s not going to be an overnight thing. We’ve got a lot of work to do and a lot of things to look at.”

DeHaven could not confirm if the vacant building had been condemned by the city, but he said it was deemed uninhabitable due to the absence of functioning utilities. No signs were posted signifying the structure was condemned, he said.

The building’s top four floors once housed apartments and the first floor previously held a variety of businesses, DeHaven said earlier Friday.

The building at 19-21-23 W. Antietam St. is owned by Fulton R. Gordon III and Gloria Mayes, whose address is listed as 8200 Kenfield Court in Bethesda, Md.

Hagerstown Planning Director Kathleen A. Maher said the building itself was not denoted as historic, but it was a “contributing building” in the city’s downtown Historic District.

At one time, the building was referred to as the Mt. Vernon Apartments, Maher said, but in recent years it was known as the Snook building, after a prior owner.

The 15,000-square-foot property, built in 1914, had been valued at $512,600 as of July 1, 2012, according to the Maryland Department of Taxation and Assessment records.

Longtime Hagerstown resident and current City Councilman Donald F. Munson said the incident underscores the importance of the city’s fire department for the safety of the community.

“These guys who handled this fire did a great job,” he said, noting that flames could have spread to adjacent buildings without their quick work.

Hagerstown Fire Department firefighters responded to the building at about 11 p.m. Thursday, as smoke billowed down West Antietam Street, across the street from the Washington County District Court building.

Flames were shooting through the roof of the building shortly after midnight.

Firefighters initially made entry into the building from both the front and rear but evacuated when it was considered to be unsafe, officials said Friday.

Ladder trucks were being used on both sides of the building as firefighters brought the blaze under control into the early morning hours Friday.

Firefighters on a ladder truck continued to pour water on the building until about 7:30 Friday morning.

DeHaven said firefighters remained at the building Friday morning in case flames flared up again.

At about 7:30 a.m., DeHaven said, “We’re waiting for sunlight, fresh crews and for some of the weight of the water to run out of the building and then we’ll consider if it’s safe enough to go inside to investigate.”

By 9 a.m., fire crews had gone inside, as had DeHaven and a building inspector, a firefighter said.

DeHaven said firefighters had been working from the outside because of the extent of structural damage to the building.

During the night, flashlights could be seen inside as firefighters worked through the upper floors and used water to douse flames.

Firefighters climbed up the rear fire escape and thick smoke rolled out of the side of the building as windows were broken for ventilation.

“We actually saw the firefighters go into that burning building,” said Tina Shane, who lives nearby.

Standing to the rear of the building, Shane said she saw the flames coming from the fourth or fifth floor of the building prior to the major flare-up of flames that ripped through the roof after midnight.

Late Thursday night, firefighters covered in black soot were seen coming out of the building and exchanging air tanks. Some still had their breathing masks on.

More units from the surrounding areas began arriving on scene within 30 or 45 minutes of the initial call, which went out at 10:54 p.m., according to a county Emergency Services dispatcher.

The Hagerstown Fire Department was working a simultaneous fire call on Winter Street, one firefighter said at the scene about 11:30 p.m.

The city issued a news release on the incident late Friday afternoon.

Units from several city fire stations were assisted at the scene by units from Funkstown, Halfway, Maugansville, Williamsport, Longmeadow and Leitersburg, plus Washington County Special Operations, Air Unit and Rehab Unit and Community Rescue Service, according to the news release.

In total, 66 emergency personnel responded to the fire, with the last units clearing the scene about 2:25 p.m. on Friday, more than 15 hours after the initial call.

The Hagerstown Fire Marshal’s Office is asking that anyone in the area who noticed activity around the building before the fire to call 301-790-2476, or email firemarshal@hagerstownmd.org.

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