A three-alarm fire gutted a large Capitol Heights warehouse owned by a national charitable organization yesterday, causing about $1.5 million in damage and destroying most of the secondhand goods stored there, Prince George's County fire officials said.
Fire department spokesman Tony DeStefano said the blaze was reported about 10:20 a.m. at 716 Ritchie Rd. near the Hampton Industrial Park by employes of the American Rescue Workers. The cause has not been determined, and no injuries were reported.
Paul Martin, director of the local American Rescue Workers chapter, said six employes were unloading goods from a truck into the 30,000-square-foot concrete warehouse when they smelled smoke.
"When they lifted the door up to unload, they looked to the end of the warehouse and saw flames leaping up from the back of the warehouse in the area where we fix radios and record players," said Martin, who was across the street from the warehouse at the time.
"I came running over and used the phone to call 911," he said. "It was a small fire at first, and I went across the street to get a fire extinguisher, but when I got back the smoke was too thick."
Fire Chief Jim Estepp said the fire spread quickly, and clouds of dark smoke billowing from the roof could be seen for miles. Estepp said two additional alarms were sounded for firefighters and equipment.
The roof of the building collapsed during the blaze, and it took firefighters more than an hour to bring the fire under control. Estepp said he expected that it would take investigators most of the night to sift through the debris.
"We were fortunate that it was contained to that one warehouse and it didn't spread to any other buildings," he said. "The place was loaded with furniture and other wood products and spread very, very quickly. It could have been a lot worse."
The warehouse was part of a 20-acre American Rescue Workers complex that includes administrative offices, a dormitory, a dining hall and a church. The organization built the complex in 1974 and moved there from its former offices on H Street NE in Washington.
The organization was founded in 1884 by officers of the Salvation Army who split from that organization and began operating shelters for the needy and homeless in several states. A chapter in the District was founded 1913 and operated a mission and shelters for homeless men and women. The American Rescue Workers has its headquarters in Philadelphia, and only about 27 chapters remain active, Martin said.
The organization raises money by collecting donations of old clothes, furniture and other household items and repairing them for resale at the American Rescue Workers' eight thrift shops in Maryland and the District.
Martin said the local chapter has 32 paid staff members, some of whom are enrolled in or have graduated from the organization's drug and alcohol rehabilitation program. Some of the employes work in administrative jobs, while others repair the secondhand goods that are brought to the warehouse.
Martin said he hopes to rebuild the warehouse, which includes the repair shop.
"We bit off more than we could chew when we built this place, and this is really a bad setback for us because we had no contents insurance," he said. "We won't go bankrupt, though. It will be difficult, but we will survive."