OCEAN CITY – Almost four months to the day since the March 30 fire on the south end of the Boardwalk that destroyed the Dough Roller restaurant and severely damaged the adjacent Marty’s Playland, a Worcester County grand jury on Tuesday indicted a local man on several counts of arson and other charges for allegedly setting the blaze.
The grand jury on Tuesday formally indicted Gregory W. Wallace Kern, 48, of Ocean City, on two counts of first-degree arson for allegedly setting the fire that destroyed the apartments over the businesses, and two counts of second-degree arson for the businesses themselves. Kern, who was an employee of the Dough Roller at the time, was also charged with one count of reckless endangerment.
The Ocean City Fire Marshal’s Office, with assistance from the Ocean City Police Department, conducted an extensive investigation in the weeks and months after the fire. At the conclusion of the investigation, the Fire Marshal’s Office developed probable cause to believe Kern had set fire to the Dough Roller and Marty’s Playland.
What turned out to be a nine-alarm fire was first reported shortly after noon on Sunday, March 30 and quickly filled the entire downtown area with thick, billowing smoke. OCPD officers first responded to the scene at 12:04 p.m. for a reported fight in progress. When the officers arrived, they observed the initial smoke and flames that would ultimately destroy the Dough Roller and the neighboring T-shirt shop, Sunshine Beachwear, and damage historic Marty’s Playland.
Details about how investigators connected Kern to the fire have not been made available and it is uncertain if he had anything to do with the assault in progress call the OCPD responded to in the area just before the discovery of the fire. The state’s attorney’s office reported Kern was an employee of Dough Roller, although it doesn’t indicate how long he worked for the company or in what capacity.
A check of Kern’s criminal record reveals he was arrested in April on a disorderly conduct charge in Ocean City and was sentenced to 60 days in jail for the offense after pleading guilty on June 25. He apparently did not serve all of the stretch for the disorderly conduct conviction because the State’s Attorney’s Office reported he was taken into custody by the OCPD this week and is being held at the Worcester County Jail.
His bond was set at $50,000 by Judge Theodore Eschenberg. Court records show he had an initial appearance in District Court yesterday, the results of which are not known. The maximum penalty for each count of first-degree arson is 30 years in jail and a $50,000 fine. The maximum penalty for each count of second-degree assault is 20 years and a $30,000 fine. In addition, the maximum penalty for reckless endangerment is five years and/or a $5,000 fine.
Ocean City Fire Services were the first to arrive to the blaze that quickly spread to become a nine-alarm fire. Over the course of the next two-plus hours, 22 fire companies joined the Ocean City crews, bringing in 38 fire engines and 15 trucks to battle the blaze. Fire companies from Worcester and Wicomico Counties in Maryland and Sussex County in Delaware joined the local effort and were able to bring the fire under control by about 2:25 p.m.
The combined efforts by the many fire companies that responded to the blaze coupled with a little bit of good luck from Mother Nature prevented the fire from doing more damage then it did. The direction of the wind helped contain to fire to the Dough Roller, Sunshine Beachwear and Marty’s Playland buildings and fire officials acknowledged later the whole block could have been lost if the wind was blowing in a different direction.
Despite the valiant effort by the collaborating fire crews, it was clear in the early hours after the blaze was contained the Dough Roller, a historic fixture on the south end of the Boardwalk built in the early 1900s, as well as Sunshine Beachwear, would not survive. Marty’s Playland was more fortunate however, sustaining fire damage along the first floor, mainly along the adjacent wall, and more extensive damage in the second floor apartments.
Despite the enormity of the tragedy, only one minor injury was reported from the fire. One firefighter sustained eye injuries from flying embers and was treated and released from Atlantic General Hospital the same day. With the restaurant open for business and the Boardwalk crowded on a warm, late March Sunday afternoon, the potential was there for more injuries, but none were reported. Instead, hundreds of bystanders and curiosity seekers stacked up behind the yellow caution tape watching firefighters tackle the blaze and snapping pictures.
A complete demolition of the Dough Roller began first thing Monday morning, the day after the fire, and by mid-week, the site was completely cleared of debris. Already the site is being prepared for a completely new Dough Roller restaurant expected to open by April next year. Damages to the adjacent Marty’s Playland were quickly repaired in the days following the fire and it re-opened quickly and remains open this summer.