On The Job - Pennsylvania: 16 Departments Battle Massive Store Fire

Jay K. Bradish reports on a commercial fire that required the efforts of 200 firefighters to control and caused approximately $15 million in damage.


On March 29, 1999, a fast-moving fire destroyed the K-Mart store in the Route 51 Plaza in Pleasant Hills, PA. About 200 firefighters from 16 departments battled the blaze, which caused an estimated $12 million in damage. PLEASANT HILLS VOLUNTEER FIRE COMPANY Chief...


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On March 29, 1999, a fast-moving fire destroyed the K-Mart store in the Route 51 Plaza in Pleasant Hills, PA. About 200 firefighters from 16 departments battled the blaze, which caused an estimated $12 million in damage.

PLEASANT HILLS VOLUNTEER FIRE COMPANY

Chief: Dan Haeck
PersonneL: 65 volunteer firefighters
Apparatus: Three engines, one aerial, one squad, one EMS vehicle, one command car
Population: 15,000
Area: 2.3 square miles

The 95,000-square-foot, one-story, cement-block building was constructed in 1961. The flat roof was constructed of steel trusses with corrugated steel decking and a built-up roof. The store contained general merchandise, a pharmacy, a garden center and an auto center. The building lacked a sprinkler system as it was constructed in 1961, before it was required by law.

Pleasant Hills is a densely populated suburban community eight miles south of Pittsburgh and protected by the 65 members of the Pleasant Hills Volunteer Fire Company.

initial operations

The fire company was dispatched at 12:38 P.M. to a reported “fire in a storeroom.” Chief Dan Haeck immediately responded in Command 2 from a prior call and requested mutual aid from the Whitehall Volunteer Fire Company and West Mifflin Volunteer Fire Department Stations 295 and 296. Pleasant Hills Engine 2 responded a minute later with a crew of seven. Haeck arrived on scene at 12:41, reported a working structure fire and established a command post in front of the main entrance (side 1). Engine 2 arrived on scene at 12:42, and was ordered to lay a five-inch supply line from a private hydrant at the south end of the Plaza to the main entrance on side 1, a distance of 450 feet. The crew of this engine initiated the initial attack and rescue operations.

Firefighters were faced with approximately 200 patrons and employees mass exiting the building through two single doors at the front entrance. The main sliding doors were inoperative due to an electrical failure from the fire. Store officials told firefighters that the fire was located in a rear storeroom on side 3. At this time, dense yellow smoke was issuing from the roof area on side 3 and the garden center on the north end of the building (side 4) was charged with smoke down to the two-foot level. Black smoke was rising 75 feet into the air from the center of side 3.

At 12:43, a Pleasant Hills rescue/ pumper, Rescue 2, responded with a five-man crew. Whitehall Assistant Chief Lee Price arrived on scene and took command of the side 1/side 4 corner at the north end of the building. The store manager told Truck Captain Gene Esken that the fire could be reached by going through the main entrance, to the rear of the store and up some stairs to a stockroom built as a “mezzanine” level above the ground floor. That’s where the merchandise on the storage racks was burning.

Pleasant Hills Truck 2, a 102-foot elevated platform, responded at 12:45 with a four-man crew. A five-member attack team under the command of Pleasant Hills Captain Scott Kunz advanced an attack line consisting of 200 feet of three- inch hose with a 21¼2-inch water thief and 200 feet of two-inch hose from Engine 2 through the main door on side 1.

The firefighters had advanced about 30 feet inside the building when they encountered high heat and thick, black smoke advancing quickly from the rear of the store. The crew could hear a roar from the advancing fire and the collapsing roof. The metal deck roofing aided in the fire spread due to the three-foot open area between the bar joists where the superheated gases became trapped and ignited below the roof level, causing early collapse.

Rescue 2 arrived at 12:47 and laid a supply line from the North Route 51 hydrant to the front of the building to supply Truck 2. Truck 2 and West Mifflin Truck 295 were positioned on side 1 near the front entrance. Haeck ordered the interior crew to abandon the line and retreat from the structure.

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