Maryland fire marshal's officials said they have begun a statewide investigation into what they say is a common and dangerous practice among bartenders who pour potent alcohol on a bar and then ignite it to start a round of drinking games.
The fiery spectacle, meant as a harmless thrill and which does not damage the bar top, has the potential to injure the bar's patrons, said Southern Region Deputy State Fire Marshal Duane Svites.
Three weeks ago, a 25-year-old woman was badly burned in Bel Alton when flames from a blazing bar lit her clothing, Svites said. Bartender Douglas E. Mattingly, 25, of Newburg was arrested yesterday and charged with reckless endangerment for allegedly pouring an alcoholic drink on the bar at Apehangers at 9100 Crain Highway and lighting it. The flames caused second-degree burns to Sundee Gilliam, Svites said.
Employees at Apehangers deny that Mattingly intended to set the bar top aflame, saying the June 3 incident was an accident. Bar owner Beverly Howe declined to comment. Employees said Mattingly had been released and was briefly at the bar yesterday.
Though fire investigators know of no similar victims and plan no other arrests, many bar patrons said the practice of lighting a bar with alcohol is common, Svites said.
"Having talked to other people who go to bars, they say, 'Yeah, this is something that happens all the time.' Now we hope to deter this as much as we can," Svites said.
He said the Bel Alton incident has prompted the fire marshal's office to expand the investigation statewide.
"We're going to go into bars and clubs . . . and discourage the act," Svites said, adding, "As far as we're concerned, it's as dangerous as you can get with an occupied bar with over a hundred people."
Drinking games come in many forms, but Svites said he's aware of one in which a bartender lights the bar before patrons pick up shot glasses with their mouths.
"We've heard a lot of other things, too," Svites said. "Like where they put 150-proof alcohol in their mouth, put a lighter underneath their chin and then spit it out like a fireball. They also spray it out of a bottle. It's as creative as you want to get."
Apehangers, a roadside establishment that employees describe as a "family-friendly" biker bar, held auditions in April for new bartenders who would be willing to dance on the bar.
The help-wanted ad, posted on the Internet, read: "Wild young things wanted now!"
"We are trying to be unbelievable," bartender Pam Crisostomo of La Plata said at the time. "We're trying to be the best biker bar in Maryland, period."
Svites said that the motivation for gimmicks using fire is as simple as it is dangerous: "The bartenders are just getting creative to try to bring the people in.
"Recently, a bar in Rhode Island used some pyrotechnics as a tactic, and they killed 100 people," Svites said, referring to the February 2003 fire that broke out when a band began its show with a burst of pyrotechnics at a nightclub in West Warwick. The fire that followed killed 100 people and injured more than 200.
Svites said that on June 3, Mattingly allegedly poured a quantity of rum across the bar and ignited it. As Gilliam approached the bar, authorities said, he repeated the trick and the flames traveled the length of the bar.
"And an innocent person standing near the bar had her clothing ignited as a result, and she was pretty severely burned," Svites said.
Svites said Gilliam was treated for five days at Washington Hospital Center's Burn Center. She was released June 8 and is recovering at home, he said.
A worker at Apehangers, who spoke on condition that she not be named, said Mattingly was pouring a drink when some spilled onto the bar. Then, she said, someone must have dropped a match or a lit cigarette.
Virginia Brooks, a former bartender at Apehangers who now tends bar elsewhere, said lighting bars is not common in Maryland, though she said she's seen it done in Florida.
"It is dangerous," Brooks said. "I would never do that at my bar."
Staff writer Joshua Partlow contributed to this report.