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2 downtown fires leave business owners, workers with questions

The scene after the fire at the intersection of Madison Street and North Charles street.

The scene after the fire at the intersection of Madison Street and North Charles street.

The final impact on businesses affected by the two five-alarm fires in Baltimore over the last 24 hours — one in the city’s cultural district and the other in its adult entertainment district — remained uncertain as firefighters and emergency personnel worked to shore up the properties and find a cause.

Yellow crime scene tape was plentiful at both sites Tuesday, keeping passersby and onlookers with cell phone cameras from getting too close. The tape, though, also limited business owners’ access in some places as they tried to gauge how much damage there was, which ranged from total losses to minor smoke and water damage.

In Mount Vernon, Qayum Karzai, owner of the well-known Afghan restaurant The Helmand, got a chance to survey the restaurant, and was relieved to find it had not been too damaged by the fire that destroyed businesses adjacent to his. The news ended what had been a long night for the Karzais as they tried to keep tabs on how bad the fire was getting.

“We got the first call about 4 a.m. telling us something had happened, and we didn’t get a whole lot of sleep,” Karzai said. “But, thanks to the amazing work of the fire department, our damage was limited. We had some water come in the back door, and there is some smoke damage, but otherwise we’re in good shape.”

The Helmand is in the same building where the fire broke out early Tuesday morning. While Karzai’s restaurant made out OK, others were not so lucky. The building is home to the flagship Donna’s, a café and coffee bar that was a fixture in the 109-year-old brick building at 800 N. Charles St.

The owners of Donna’s could not be reached for comment, but it was clear the restaurant was heavily damaged.

MyThai and Indigma, restaurants that are also in the building, also were heavily damaged and are not likely to reopen soon in that location. Offices in the top floors of the building also sustained severe damage and are not likely to be occupied soon.

Evidence of the battle to control the fire from 21 fire engines, 11 trucks, support units and more than 150 firefighters and command staff was evident. The streets were slick with water, and trees, cars and even a 10-speed bicycle chained to a nearby light pole were encased in ice.

“It was a very, very tough fire,” Baltimore Fire Chief James S. Clack said. “It had a good head start on us.”

Adding to the confusion over damages was the uncertainty for employees of the restaurants. One man who showed up for work at Donna’s on Tuesday in his uniform was turned back by police. The man, who asked not to be identified, said he was not sure what he was going to do.

“I think I’m out of work now,” he said. “I’m supposed to get paid Thursday — I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

A spokesman for The Time Group, manager of the building, said cleanup at the site, now guarded, would continue for at least the next few days.

What the restoration work and the loss of restaurants will do was one question on the mind of Kyle Lam, owner of the Baltimore Barber Lounge. He opened his shop, across the street from 800 N. Charles St., a few months ago and said he was concerned about the impact to foot traffic in the area.

“I am worried, Donna’s is a big fixture on this block,” Lam said. “It’s hard to see anything positive coming out of this.”

As cleanup work got started in Mount Vernon, emergency personnel were still sorting through the first fire, which tore through five or six buildings of The Block the previous night. That fire started about 4 p.m. and was brought under control at about 7 p.m.

The Block, well-known for its strip clubs and adult bookstores, remained cordoned off Tuesday afternoon. Workers continued to board up windows at the hardest-hit businesses at 400 E. Baltimore St., Gayety Show World and Blue Mirror.

Firefighters and investigators were on the scene throughout the afternoon. An operations vehicle from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was parked nearby.

Keeping an eye on what was being done, and waiting for an opportunity to get back into his shop, were George Alevrogiannis, owner of Crazy John’s Sub Shop, and his family. Alevrogiannis said he had been in the restaurant prior to the fire. Driving back after hearing of the fire, he feared the worst when he saw the column of black smoke rising up from right where the restaurant is located.

Initial reports about the fire also indicated the sub shop might have been heavily damaged by the blaze, but Alevrogiannis said he was surprised at the actual lack of damage when he got a quick look inside.

“I saw the black smoke rising up, and I thought ‘that’s it,’” Alevrogiannis said. “But, when I looked around there didn’t seem to be any real damage. It was pretty crazy.

“I’d even say we’re ready to reopen as soon as today if we could,” he added.

The causes of both fires remain under investigation and there have been no damage estimates.