CUMBERLAND — The first fire in Downtown Cumberland in nearly three decades injured four firefighters Sunday and is one that is expected to be a “high dollar loss.”

Michael Joy, the owner of 49 N. Liberty St., however, already has vowed to reconstruct the seven luxury apartments that were within a month of completion.

About 60 firefighters battled the three-alarm blaze at the former Zembower’s hardware store that took a “good three hours” to get under control, according to Cumberland Fire Chief William Herbaugh.

Cumberland Fire Marshal Boyce Rogers said the preliminary investigation indicates the fire was electrical and caused by a short in the first-floor ceiling.

Ed Mullaney, co-manager of the city’s Town Centre, was one his way to work about 8:30 a.m. When he looked toward downtown, he could see the smoke rolling out of the building.

“There was a sickness in the pit of my stomach like you can’t believe. ...,” he said. “It’s a devastating loss to downtown. You want to sit down and cry but it won’t do any good.”

Joy of Washington was notified by Brendan Taylor, his architect on the project about 9 a.m. He arrived about 11:30 a.m.

“It was clearly accidental,” Joy, a real estate developer and builder, said. “There’s no indication it was anything other; there’s no malfeasance or someone not doing what they should have done.”

Joy purchased the building from William and Karen Iames on July 22, 2005, and has spent nearly a year renovating the four-story, 10,000-square-foot building into luxury apartments with retail space planned on the first floor. None of the space, however, had been rented.

Built around 1910, he said the building hadn’t been anything but a hardware store with storage space on the upper three floors. He said everything on those three floors was “pristine,” which is what appealed to him.

By early afternoon, Joy said he would rebuild and that now he’ll have to hang a sign saying “even more luxurious apartments coming soon.”

“We’ll get it back going as quickly as we can,” Joy, who is insured, said. “It will be an eyesore for a while and I apologize for that.”

Mullaney, who called Joy an “amazing developer” and “quality human being,” said he’s sure the city will provide as many resources to Joy as possible.

“This was our crown gem of upper story living,” he said. “This is a huge loss but we’ve had other setbacks before.”

“It’s devastating news,” Sue Cerutti, Town Centre’s co-manager who has worked closely with Joy, added. “Michael Joy is one of the loveliest, most progressive developers we’ve worked with.”

She also expects to see everyone pull together to pitch in and to help Joy with whatever is needed.

Cerutti said with the older buildings so close to each other it is scary to think of what could happen. But she credits Smart Growth codes with helping to ensure such tragedies are rare.

Herbaugh said one crew was getting off duty when they saw the smoke and ran back inside notifying their colleagues about 7:50 a.m.

When firefighters arrived, they opened the front door feeding the fire oxygen and causing it to “light off real good,” Rogers said. The fire then went through all four floors, causing heavy damage throughout the structure.

“I haven’t even thought about a dollar amount but it will be high,” he said of damage estimates.

A walk up the fire escape behind Clark’s Camera Centre provides an interior look at the rear of the first two floors where nothing is recognizable. Outside, the ServiStar Zembower Hardware sign on the second floor is one of the few things unscathed.

“The building was in the process of being remodeled; now the determination has to be made by engineers to see if the building is worth saving,” Rogers said.

Morgan Stanley at 53 N. Liberty, the adjacent building, suffered minor fire damage.

Herbaugh said crews also were concerned about Clark’s Camera Centre, which sits behind the Liberty Street building at 56-58 N. Centre St. He explained the tie-rod that holds the building in place was pushing out because of the heat and amount of water and the concern was the back wall would collapse onto the Clark building.

Wade Clark was in Sunday school class when he heard it was either the luxury apartments or Coney Island on fire. Knowing his building was directly behind Joy’s, he headed downtown.

Other than a smoke smell and a little water, the only damage he encountered was broken door glass at 58 N. Centre, which was smashed by firefighters to check the apartments upstairs. Clark said those have been vacant but checked again himself with city police to make sure no one was there.

The incident could have become even more serious following a mayday call when two city firefighters fell through a floor. Herbaugh said the two were rescued quickly by a Rapid Intervention Team. Two other firefighters, one from the city and another a volunteer with Wiley Ford, also were treated for heat exhaustion.

Citing federal privacy laws, Herbaugh did not release the names of the injured but did say the three city firefighters were treated and released from the Western Maryland Health System’s Memorial campus. The condition of the Wiley Ford firefighter was not available.

Herbaugh, however, is pleased with the operation and cooperation of all the mutual aid companies.

“Everyone did what they were supposed to do,” he said, adding many off-duty city firefighters also arrived on the scene.

Both Herbaugh and Rogers say the last fire downtown they remember occurred Nov. 12, 1978, when Touch of Home, 34-36 N. Mechanic St., burned. The site now is home to the Department of Parole and Probation.

“We’ve been most fortunate here of late but it finally caught up with us,” Rogers said.

Mullaney, Danny Gantzler, a downtown employee, and Corey Walters, a community volunteer, collected food from McDonald’s, Martins, Papa Johns, Queen City Creamery, Roy Rogers, Sheetz, Subway, Taco Bell and Wendy’s.

Herbaugh said with about 80 pounds of turnout gear and breathing apparatus on, it was important for firefighters to replenish their fluids often. By early afternoon, the temperature had soared to 87 degrees.

In addition to Cumberland fire and ambulance crews, volunteers were called from Clarysville, Bowman’s Addition, Bedford Road, Bowling Green, LaVale, Frostburg, Wiley Ford and Piedmont, W.Va. Units on standby included Shaft, Baltimore Pike, District 16, Cresaptown and Rawlings.

The Cumberland Police Department, Allegany County Fire Police, Allegheny Power and Columbia Gas also responded. North Liberty and Centre streets were closed for several hours.

Maria Smith can be reached at

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