By DAN DEARTH
7:33 PM EST, February 4, 2013
A mechanical failure in an oil-burning furnace started a five-alarm fire Monday that caused an estimated $500,000 in damages to the former Wolfe’s on the Square building in downtown Williamsport, the Maryland State Fire Marshal’s Office said.
The fire was reported at 7:18 a.m. Monday in an outbuilding that housed the furnace and the fire quickly spread through the three-story structure, according to a fire marshal’s office news release.
One occupied apartment and the L&J discount liquor store were on the first floor of the building. Four vacant apartments were on the second and third floors.
Kevin Lewis, director of Washington County Emergency Services, said the fire was under control shortly before noon.
He said no residents or firefighters were injured, but a “mayday” distress call was made when a firefighter fell and got entangled in wires.
“He was able to free himself,” Lewis said.
The square was filled with dark smoke as firefighters maneuvered their trucks into position.
Lewis said at least 20 engine companies and five ladder companies from Maryland and West Virginia were battling the blaze. One of the fire companies, Lewis said, came from as far away as Montgomery County (Md).
Firefighters were hampered by freezing weather conditions.
Lewis said they had to use “brute force” to open hydrants that had frozen shut.
Workers from the Washington County Roads Department and State Highway Administration used trucks to spread salt on the icy streets to prevent firefighters from falling.
Dolly Gray said she was sleeping in her apartment at the back of the building when she was awaken by the smell of smoke. She sat at a window in a neighbor’s home watching the firefighters at work.
“I have no idea what happened,” said the 89-year-old Gray, who lived in the apartment for about 25 years.
Gray received financial assistance, clothing and food from the American Red Cross, according to a Red Cross news release.
Early in the day, black smoke rolled through the area and could be seen from East Potomac Street from the off ramp of Interstate 81. The smoke was the thickest at the back of the building.
Smoke was coming from all three floors of the building. At one point, flames could be seen on the first floor and the roof.
Town resident and historian Joan Knode said the building dates back to the Civil War.
Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee stopped at the site and talked to residents. “He tied his horse there and talked to people at that corner. It seems all our history is right at that corner,” she said.
“It’s just a piece of history that probably will be gone right there around the corner,” said Knode, who also is on Williamsport Town Council. “I know everybody around there. It’s sad, just sad.”
Mayor James McCleaf II was standing on the square watching the firefighters battle the blaze.
He was seen talking to emergency officials to get updates.
“It’s terrible,” McCleaf said. “As long as no one got hurt, that’s the main thing.”
Staff writer Janet Heim contributed to this story.
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