- The Washington Times - Monday, November 29, 2004

Arson struck twice yesterday morning on Route 1 near the University of Maryland, damaging a restaurant and a hotel, Prince George’s County fire officials said.

“We’re not ruling out that [the two fires] are connected,” said Mark Brady, spokesman for the Prince George’s County fire department. There’s a very real possibility that they are; we’re just not going that far yet.”

No one was injured in the two fires — one at the Best Western College Park Inn at 8601 Baltimore Ave. and the other five blocks away at Lasick’s College Inn.

Mr. Brady said the blazes appeared to have been set outside and near natural gas meters feeding the establishments’ kitchens.

“We’re highly concerned about the similarities of these two incidents,” he said.

However, Mr. Brady said investigators have ruled out a link between the two fires and the serial arsonist responsible for 43 blazes in the region over the past year and a half, including 17 in Prince George’s County.

Fire officials said they have no suspects or motives in the cases.

The first fire was set about 6 a.m. on the outer walls of a restaurant at the Best Western, just north of the University of Maryland. Two firefighters rescued three adults from a third-story room after flames blocked their exit.

Authorities said the fire destroyed two hotel rooms and blackened a hallway, kitchen and banquet room. Damage was estimated at $1 million.

Firefighters battling the blaze at the hotel spotted a plume of smoke north on Route 1 at about 7:30 a.m., Mr. Brady said.

Units rushed to Lasick’s were forced to simply contain the blaze after a gas line leading to the restaurant’s kitchen leaked. The gas ignited, causing an explosion and what Mr. Brady described as a “blowtorch effect.”

He said firefighters evacuated the building and allowed the gas to burn to prevent its release into the atmosphere.

“[The explosion] was deafening and drowned out the noise of our apparatus,” Mr. Brady said. “If we had put that fire out and let the natural gas accumulate, this would’ve been a catastrophe.”

Authorities said the fire started in the rear of the restaurant and spread through an exterior corridor leading to the kitchen. Damage was estimated at $10 million.

Employees and owners of Lasick’s — a family-owned restaurant open since 1949 — milled around the scene. Plumes of smoke from extinguished fires continued to rise in the afternoon.

Mark Weber, the restaurant’s general manager, expressed anger that the fire was set deliberately.

“I think it’s wrong to take somebody’s livelihood,” said Mr. Weber, 46. “This is how I made my living, and I don’t know what I’m going to do now.”

Joe Lasick, who owns the restaurant with his father, Sonny, said his establishment drew customers ages 18 to 90. He said he plans to rebuild.

“I never had a low feeling in my heart, but I feel low today,” Mr. Lasick said. “We’ll get it going again. We’re not going to lay down and die over this.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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