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.
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.
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.
The interior crew was already retreating due to the fire conditions and collapse when the order was given. It was decided to go into a defensive mode with master streams. At 12:50, Kunz informed the command post that all firefighters had safely exited the building. Within two minutes, the fire reached the front of the store, blowing out the front windows and threatening Engine 2. Assistant Chief Todd Pritchard placed the engine’s 1,000-gpm stepgun into service along with a 200-foot 21¼2-inch handline and a 11¼2-inch trash line into operation at the front doors of the building. At the same time, Lieutenant Rob Richardson placed the engine’s 2,000-gpm deck gun into operation to protect the apparatus and firefighters from the flames.
Whitehall Truck 6, a 75-foot aerial, arrived on scene at 12:51 and was positioned on side 3, where Price was reporting heavy fire through the roof. At 12:51, the hydrant supply line to Engine 2 was charged. Haeck requested mutual aid from Broughton Fire Company at 12:53. At 12:54, the hydrant supply line to Rescue 2 and the supply line to Truck 2 were charged. A minute later, Engine 65’s hydrant supply line was charged. West Mifflin Squirt 296 was positioned on side 1 south of the main entrance. Whitehall Rescue 6, a walk-in rescue with a cascade system, then arrived and was positioned on side 4 (north end).
variety of hazards
Haeck again advised all firefighters NOT to enter the building. Supply lines were established from engines to Truck 295 and Truck 6. Haeck told Price he was concerned about a collapse on side 3 as the building was fully involved and his primary concern was safety. Haeck ordered all firefighters who were in smoke to be masked-up as pesticides, ammunition and propane were burning and exploding. Minimum collapse zones were established around the building.
At 1:02, Price reported to command that the walls on side 3 were bowing. Haeck ordered the apparatus and crews be repositioned to the side 3/side 4 corner. Price requested additional manpower to side 3 to help relocate the apparatus and hoselines. From the platform of Truck 2, Lieutenant Mark Grimm reported that the wall on side 1 was leaning inward. Truck 2 requested additional water pressure from Rescue 2, but was told no more pressure was available. The Brentwood Fire Company was called for mutual aid at 1:10. Broughton Engine 42 arrived at 1:11 and was positioned at the Route 51 hydrant south of the complex. West Mifflin Wagon 295 had just completed laying a 1,200-foot supply line from this hydrant to West Mifflin Engine 295, positioned on side 1.
Engine 65 and Truck 6 reported to command that they had relocated to the corner at side 3/side 4 at 1:12. South Baldwin Engine 8 laid a 2,000-foot supply line from Engine 65 to a hydrant on East Bruceton Road west of the fire. Option Engine 10 hooked onto this hydrant with soft suction. Engine 65 was then able to supply Castle Shannon Truck 15, a 100-foot elevated platform located on side 4, with two 200-foot supply lines. Engine 65 was also supplying Truck 6.
Haeck requested mutual aid from Jefferson Fire-Rescue at 12:55. Rescue Engine 73 was set up at the corner of side 1/side 2 to protect the south-end exposures. This engine was supplied with a supply line from Engine 2. Crews operated two 21¼2-inch handlines. Jefferson Hills Fire-Rescue Truck 16, a 100-foot aerial, was set up at the corner of side 2/side 3 and was supplied with a supply line from Pleasant Hills Engine 25, which was hooked onto the south private hydrant with six-inch soft suction that was initially taken by Engine 2.
A cement block firewall separated K-Mart from a furniture store and five other businesses. A coordinated defensive stand was successful at this point, even though the fire wall became distorted and damaged. Squirt 296, Truck 295 and Truck 16 operated aerial master streams along this area. Firefighters advanced two 21¼2-inch handlines, one to the roof and one to the interior of the furniture store from Jefferson Hills Engine 293 along with Engine 2’s 1,000-gpm stepgun to protect the exposures.
Haeck declared the fire under control at 3:40 P.M. By 8 P.M., it was decided to release mutual aid equipment not in operation at the scene. Because of the various hazardous materials that had burned, decontamination of all firefighters and apparatus was required. The Allegheny County Hazardous Materials Team was responsible for the decontamination of firefighters.
Water from firefighting operations mixed with paints, solvents, oil, fertilizers, pool chlorine, soap, shampoo and pharmaceuticals and flowed into Lewis Run, Peters Creek and toward the Monongahela River. The Pennsylvania-American Water Co., whose water intake is at Becks Run, was notified and monitored the water for contamination. The City of Pittsburgh Department of General Services sent a diesel fuel tanker to the scene to supply fuel to the apparatus.
Pleasant Hills crews remained on the scene with one engine and one ladder until 9:30 the following morning. Crews returned several times over the next several days to extinguish hot spots as demolition crews removed the collapsed roof of the building.
An investigation was conducted by local fire officials, the Allegheny County Fire Marshal’s Office, the Pennsylvania State Police Fire Marshal’s Division and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms National Response Team. Investigators believe that the fire was accidental and was caused by an electrical malfunction in the fixed wiring in the second-story storeroom.
In addition to the 16 departments that battled the blaze, several other departments were on standby. Over 12 million gallons of water was used to extinguish the fire. Two firefighters suffered minor injuries. Approximately $3,500 worth of firefighting equipment was destroyed. Emergency medical services were coordinated by Baldwin EMS and four other agencies.
Jay K. Bradish, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a former captain in the Bradford Township, PA, Fire Department. He has been a volunteer firefighter and fire photographer for more than 20 years.