On The Job - Maryland: Many Departments Battle Fire in Frostburg Theater

July 1, 2004
Jay K. Bradish discusses a multiple-alarm fire that destroyed the historic Lyric Theatre building in Frostburg, MD, on Feb. 1, 2004; plus the latest "Hot Spots on the Web."
On Feb. 1, 2004, a multiple-alarm fire destroyed the historic Lyric Theatre building located at 16-24 East Main St. in Frostburg, MD. Before the fire was controlled, 27 fire departments from Allegany and Garrett counties in Maryland, Mineral County in West Virginia and Somerset County in Pennsylvania fought the blaze or provided station coverage.
Photo By Jeff Rosewicz Firefighters set up for defensive operations on side 1 of the three-story brick building. Heavy smoke and fire are venting from the building, which was of balloon-type construction with heavy-timber floor framing and a flat roof.
Chief: Michael W. KucharczykPersonneL: 95 volunteer firefightersApparatus: Two engines, one 100-foot aerial ladder, one squad unit, one utility vehiclePopulation: 8,100 (plus 5,400 when Frostburg State University is in session)Area: 10 square miles

The three-story brick building was erected in 1876. The building, measuring 75 feet wide by 175 feet deep, was of balloon-type construction with heavy-timber floor framing and a flat roof. The original structure on the site was built in 1840 and burned down in 1873. A fire in 1950 damaged the theater portion of the latest building. Two businesses occupied the first floor and nine apartments located on the second and third floors were occupied by 14 residents. Warehouse Wars, a clothing store, occupied 16-18 East Main and Gandalf’s Restaurant and Pub was at 20-24 East Main. Apartments were located on the second and third floors at 22 East Main.

The Frostburg Volunteer Fire Department was dispatched at 6:20 A.M. to a report of smoke in an apartment at 22 East Main. The first-alarm assignment called for three engines, two trucks, one squad and an ambulance. Frostburg Engine 16-14, a 1,250-gpm pumper, Engine 16-12, a 1,500-gpm pumper, Truck 16, a 100-foot aerial ladder, Squad 16 and Utility 16 responded with a total of 35 firefighters under the command of Chief Michael Kucharczyk. LaVale Fire Department Truck 2, a 100-foot tower ladder, Shaft Fire Department Engine 17-12, a 1,000-gpm pumper, and Clarysville Fire Department Engine-Tanker 14, a 1,000-gpm pumper with 1,500 gallons of water, also responded.

Kucharczyk was first to arrive on scene and found light smoke showing from the structure. Due to the time of the day, life safety of the residents was a primary concern. Evacuations were already underway by members of the Frostburg Police Department and residents of the building. Kucharczyk requested a second alarm at 6:24 A.M. Eastern Garrett Fire Department Engine 81, LaVale Engine 2-15, Midland Fire Department Engine 18-12 and Squad 18, Tri-Towns Fire Department from Piedmont, WV, Truck 24 and Air 24 and LaVale Rescue Squad Ambulance 374 responded on the second alarm.

The initial concern for the crew of Engine 16-14 was to ensure that all occupants were out of the building. Firefighters found very light smoke on the second and third floors as they performed search and evacuation operations. Initially, firefighters didn’t need self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), but smoke conditions deteriorated rapidly on the third floor, requiring the donning of airpacks.

Engine 16-14 was positioned in front of the building and was supplied by dual three-inch 200-foot supply lines from a hydrant rated at 1,500-gpm on an eight-inch water main. Truck 16 was positioned on East Main at the 1-4 corner of the building. Engine 16-12 was positioned on East Main and was supplied with dual 100-foot three-inch supply lines from a hydrant rated at 500-1,000 gpm on an eight-inch main. Shaft Engine 17-12 was positioned at the rear of the building. This engine laid dual 500-foot three-inch supply lines from a hydrant rated at 1,000-1,500-gpm on a six-inch main. An additional three-inch supply line was hand laid 300 feet to another hydrant. LaVale Truck 2 was supplied with a 400-foot five-inch supply line from Engine 2-15. This engine hooked on to a hydrant with a five-inch supply line. This hydrant was on a 10-inch main rated at 1,500 gpm.

Photo by Steve Bittner/Cumberland Times News Side 1 of the building. Heavy smoke issues from the building with fire vented through the roof. Engine 16-14’s deck gun is in operation. Truck 16, at right, is preparing to raise its ladder pipe into position for defensive operations.

After completing the search operations, firefighters began pulling the walls on the second and third floors in an effort to find the fire. Due to repeated remodeling, crews were running into brick walls and numerous concealed voids. The first interior attack crew stretched a 200-foot two-inch attack line to the second floor of the building. As additional firefighters arrived, a 200-foot 13¼4-inch attack line was also taken to the second floor, and another 200-foot 13¼4-inch attack line was taken into the first-floor store. Engine 16-14 supplied these attack lines.

Firefighters found fire as they opened up one of the second floor apartment walls. The fire “took off” after getting the fresh oxygen. A crew from Engine 17-12 stretched a 300-foot 13¼4-inch line into the basement from the rear of the building. This crew located the fire in the furnace room and attacked it.

By this time, the fire had spread vertically up through the walls and a void space around the chimney. The fire spread was unstopped due to the balloon-type construction. Once the fire reached the roof, it spread horizontally throughout the attic. As smoke conditions worsened, the firefighters from Truck 16 used their aerial to gain access to the roof. They were assisted by a crew from Engine-Tanker 14 ventilating the roof with a ventilation saw and flat-head axes. Immediately after the ventilation hole was completed, heavy smoke and fire pushed through the hole and firefighters immediately withdrew from the roof. Additional crews were also opening up the walls in the first-floor businesses as the smoke conditions continued to worsen on all three floors.

Photo by Steve Bittner/Cumberland Times News The Frostburg Volunteer Fire Department’s Truck 16, a 100-foot aerial ladder, operates its ladder pipe on the 1-4 side of the building. The truck was supplied by two three-inch 150-foot supply lines from Clarysville Engine-Tanker 14.

A third alarm was requested at 6:52. Mount Savage Fire Department Engine 15-12, Barton Fire Department Engine-Tanker 19, and LaVale Squad 2 responded.

At 7:22, Kucharczyk ordered all firefighters out of the building due to deteriorating conditions inside the building. An accountability check was made and all firefighters were accounted for. Defensive operations were initiated with three aerial master streams, three ground monitors and numerous 21¼2-inch and 13¼4-inch handlines. Engine 16-14 placed its truck-mounted deluge gun into operation. A 50-foot three-inch supply line was laid to supply Engine 16-12’s portable deluge monitor that was placed on the ground in front of Engine 16-14 on side 1. A portable deluge monitor from Engine 8-11 was placed on side 4, supplied by a 100- foot three-inch supply line from Engine 16-12. This monitor was used to provide a water curtain between the fire building and St. Michael’s Rectory, just a foot away.

Truck 16’s ladder pipe was placed into operation at the 1-4 corner of the building. This truck was supplied by two three-inch 150-foot supply lines from Engine-Tanker 14. LaVale Truck 2 placed two aerial master streams into operation at the rear of the building, supplied by Engine 2-15. Tri-Towns Truck 24 was positioned on East Main in front of the adjacent building and placed its ladder pipe into operation, being supplied by a 100-foot five-inch supply line from Engine-Tanker 19. The engine-tanker was supplied by a 150-foot five-inch supply line from a hydrant rated at 1,500-gpm on a 10-inch main.

A fourth alarm was requested at 7:59. Bowling Green Engine 8-11 and Squad 8, Oakland Fire Department Truck 44, Grantsville Fire Department Squad 65, Salisbury, PA, Engine 618-9, Meyersdale, PA, Engine 617 and Northern Garrett Rescue Squad Ambulance 1-1 responded on the alarm.

The majority of the fire was knocked down by 9 A.M. and defensive operations were shut down. Crews were then allowed to continue interior operations. Firefighters found fire still burning in the ceiling area of 20 East Main. The interior attack on the second floor was limited due to the collapse of the roof and third floor on the second floor. Truck 44 was positioned at the 3-4 corner of the building and its aerial was positioned to allow firefighters access to the second floor for overhaul and extinguishment. Crews advanced two 13¼4-inch lines from the aerial into the second floor. Truck 44 was supplied by a 150-foot five-inch supply line from Engine 47-11. This engine had laid 1,800 feet of supply line from a 1,500-gpm hydrant on an 18-inch main.

Photo by Steve Bittner/Cumberland Times News Firefighters are engaged in defensive operations on side 1 of the building. The front of Truck 16 is at the lower right. Engine 16-14 is in front of the building with its deck gun in operation. The firefighters in front of Engine 16-14 are setting up a portable monitor for operation. Chief 16’s command vehicle is seen with command staff devising a plan of operation. Behind Engine 16-14, Truck 24 is being set up for operation.

Fire also continued to burn in the basement, but firefighters could not gain access to it because it had filled with three feet of water from firefighting operations. A crew was sent into the clothing store to open up the floor in an attempt to gain access to the fire. At the same time, several portable pumps were set up to remove the water from the basement. Firefighters were able to control the basement fire from the first floor long enough for the water to be pumped out, allowing other firefighters access to the basement so that the fire could be completely extinguished. A partial collapse of the roof facade narrowly missed several firefighters operating on side 1 as overhaul operations were being performed.

A fifth alarm was requested at 11:13 for relief manpower. Rawlings Fire Department Engine 47-11, Cresaptown Fire Department Squad 9, Goodwill Fire Department Squad 20, an engine from Accident Fire Department/Garrett County Station 50 and an engine from Friendsville Fire Department/Garrett County Station 110 responded.

The fire was declared under control at 11:59 A.M. and out at 12:49 P.M. Over 150 firefighters used seven engines, four aerials, three squads, and two air-supply units battling the fire. All other apparatus was staged and the manpower was used for firefighting operations. Mutual aid began being released at 12:05 P.M., with the last Frostburg units leaving the scene at 3:19 P.M. Three firefighters suffered minor injuries, while no civilian injuries were reported. The temperature at the time of the fire was three degrees, thus necessitating the large amount of mutual aid so that firefighters could be rotated out of the cold.

Photo by Steve Bittner/Cumberland Times News Despite hopes that the fire-damaged historic building could be restored, a portion of it had to be demolished on May 20, 2004, after a partial collapse occurred the previous night. The partial collapse, which caused bricks to fall onto the sidewalk, was attributed to recent heavy rains and strong winds.

An investigation into the cause of the fire was started immediately by the Maryland State Fire Marshal’s Office and was completed by 6 P.M. the day of the fire. It was determined that a coal furnace in the basement overheated, causing nearby wooden structural members to ignite. Balloon-type construction allowed the fire to spread vertically. Frequent remodeling of the building concealed the fire in many areas, making it difficult for firefighters to stop its progress.

The building owner had offered the building to the City of Frostburg in the hopes that the historic structure could be restored. However, on May 19, just before midnight, the building began to collapse, with bricks from the front of the building falling onto the sidewalk. The partial collapse was attributed to the recent heavy rains and strong winds. A portion of the building had to be demolished, leaving little hope for its restoration. Damage was estimated at $1 million to the building and its contents.

Jay K. Bradish/IFPA, Firehouse® news editor, is a former captain in the Bradford Township, PA, Fire Department. He has been a volunteer firefighter and fire photographer for more than 25 years.

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