Eight Vehicles Destroyed in Oregon Auto Shop Blaze

The cause of the fire at German Formula Inc. is under investigation.

Feb. 10--Bianca Hansrote was walking home Sunday night when she spotted a fire engine in front of her house in Northeast Portland.

A few feet closer, she noticed black, billowing smoke and panicked.

"We were terrified when we saw it," Hansrote said. "We thought it was our house."

It wasn't. The fire roared in back of her house through German Formula, Inc., an auto repair and autobody shop at Northeast 11th Avenue and Couch Street. Ignited about 9:30 p.m., the blaze took about 100 firefighters nearly three hours to knock it down. During that time, officials evacuated four households, cut electricity to part of the block and closed nearby streets.

With small explosions inside the building, firefighters had to stand back 50 feet in the snow and douse it with 4,000 gallons of water.

"They created an ice rink out there," said Lt. Rich Chatman, spokesman for Portland fire. "That's not fun."

Greg McMickle, whose Victorian home sits next to the shop, was watching the Olympics when he heard sirens, glanced outside and saw a fire engine. He noticed the smoke as well but didn't think much about it until an official banged on his door a short while later and told him to leave. Firefighters were worried about the smoke pouring towards his house.

McMickle sat inside a fire truck for awhile to keep warm and then was moved to a heated TriMet bus that had been called to the scene. In less than an hour when the winds shifted and the smoke billowed skyward, he was allowed back in his home

Had he been anxious? Not at all, he said. "The fire department was doing such a good job taking care of everything," he said.

No one was injured and the fire was contained to the shop.

Investigators combed through the charred wreckage on Monday with the help of Lila, a dog trained to detect accelerants. Chatman said they're still trying to determine what caused the blaze and estimate the damage.

The fire seared off the roof of the masonry building and turned the inside into a charred mess of twisted car parts and carcasses of blackened metal.

Ralf Leopold, a German native who specializes in fixing high-end German imports, owns the shop. He could not be reached for comment. The website for German Formula, Inc., says he has managed a number of BMW and Mercedes Benz repair and auto body shops, is president of the Mercedes Benz Club of Portland and has served on boards advising Oregon public schools.

He hired Fire Restoration, a Gladstone company, to clean up the mess, a task that took all morning. A crew collected dozens of bags of debris and boarded up the building with plywood.

Clay Bond, a first responder with Fire Restoration, estimated it would take five to seven months to repair the building.

As crews worked, Marie Normandin of Southeast Portland dropped by to see how the work was going on the brand new Porsche she had dropped off to have a part installed. Her car was among about eight inside the shop that were destroyed.

"I always wanted one, ever since I was a little girl," she said of the car, which she bought in November.

"It was my first one. I drove it three times, and now it's toast."

Photographer Beth Nakamura contributed to this story.

-- Lynne Terry

Copyright 2014 - The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.