A 26-year-old man who was charged Tuesday in a fire that significantly damaged a vacant five-story building at 19-23 W. Antietam Street last Thursday night told a city fire marshal that he was trying to stay warm, started a fire in a bathtub, and was sorry for the resulting blaze, according to court records.
Ernest Leroy Stitely Jr., said he checked on the fire in the tub at one point and opened a bathroom window to let some smoke out, said court records.
Stitely said he later heard a roaring sound, went to the bathroom and noticed an “uncontrollable” fire coming from under the tub, said court records.
The fire ended up ripping through the upper floors of the building causing at least 66 personnel to be sent to the scene to help battle the blaze.
Stitely was taken into custody Tuesday morning without incident, according to a news release from the city.
Stitely has been charged with fourth-degree burglary, reckless endangerment, causing fire through negligence and failing to notify the fire department of an unwanted fire. Stitely is free on $25,000 bond.
At about 11 p.m. last Thursday, firefighters were called to the South Potomac Street area and they observed heavy fire at the fourth and fifth floors of the building on West Antietam Street, according to a complaint filed against Stitely in Washington County District Court by Hagerstown Fire Marshal Doug DeHaven.
DeHaven said one firefighter fell through the fourth floor and another fire crew reported that a bathtub on the fourth floor partially fell through the floor while they were punching through a ceiling in an attempt to access the fire.
DeHaven said he and other fire investigators examined the building Friday and determined that the fire started under a bathtub in apartment 403. There was damage on the top and bottom sides of the metal tub, DeHaven said.
On Friday, DeHaven said an owner of a downtown business contacted him to say that one of his employees had been staying in the West Antietam Street building. The employee was identified as Stitely, DeHaven said.
On Saturday, DeHaven said he received a call from Stitely, who said he wanted to talk to DeHaven. DeHaven said he met Stitely at his work place.
“Stitely started out the conversation that he started the fire in the building. Stitely continued that he was sorry for causing the fire and stated that he was trying to stay warm,” DeHaven wrote in his complaint.
Stitely told DeHaven that he had been living with another individual and that they had been recently evicted from their home. Stitely said that he was first in the West Antietam Street building a couple days before talking to DeHaven and that he found a rear first floor door unlocked.
“Stitely stated that he would go through the first floor apartment to enter the interior stairwell. From this point, he found the fourth floor provided him a location that people passing the building would not cause his dogs to bark and people wouldn’t see him,” DeHaven wrote.
Stitely said after he finished work at about 8:30 p.m. Thursday, he entered the building and went to the fourth floor to check on his two dogs, one of which was a pit bull, according to DeHaven’s complaint.
Stitely said he had been collecting wood in the building and stacked some next to a bathtub. Stitely said he put some wood in the bathtub, started a fire with a lighter and went into another room with his dogs, the complaint said.
After some time, Stitely said he noticed a buildup of smoke and went to the bathroom to open a window to let some of it escape. Stitely said he next heard a roaring sound, went to the bathroom and noticed the fire coming from under the tub, according to the complaint.
Stitely said he grabbed his dogs, some belongings and headed to a fire escape. Stitely said he left the area with his dogs and went to a friend’s house, according to DeHaven’s complaint.
DeHaven said Stitely did not notify the fire department of the blaze.
DeHaven said he went back to the building on Sunday and found two dog bowls on the fourth floor and two pieces of a burned document. The name Ernest Stitely was on both pieces of the document, DeHaven said.
DeHaven gave two scenarios of how the fire started. In the first scenario, DeHaven said the fire within the tub caused combustible flooring materials under the tub to heat up until they reached ignition temperature. In the second scenario, burning embers from the fire in the tub fell through the bathtub’s drain, DeHaven said.
DeHaven said some plumbing under the tub had been removed and was consistent with copper thefts that have been a problem in the area.
A city official said on Monday that West Antietam Street between South Potomac Street and Rochester Place will remain closed at least through the end of this week as demolition work continues on the burned structure. It is possible that the portion of the street might be closed until Feb. 18.
Parts of the building were found to be structurally unstable following the fire and Washington County contractor Joel Merrbaugh began demolition work Saturday to remove the top floor of the building, city officials said.
The building was constructed in 1914 and although it had been vacant for years, it previously had apartments on the top floors and a business on the first level.
The owners are listed in tax records as Fulton Gordon III and Gloria Mayes, who records show as having a Bethesda, Md., address.
DeHaven said Fulton Gordon was contacted and officials were told that the property is in foreclosure and PNC Bank is responsible for it.
There is an elevator shaft in the building and officials inspecting the building found two more open shafts, which posed a “significant risk” to firefighters working in the building, DeHaven said.