First Report - Pittsburgh: Church Fire Tragedy Claims Two Pittsburgh Firefighters

David P. Novak discusses a five-alarm structure fire at a Pittsburgh, PA, church that killed two firefighters.


At 8:47 A.M. on Saturday, March 13, 2004, as the City of Pittsburgh was preparing for its annual St. Patrick?s Day parade, a woman was preparing breakfast at the Ebenezer Baptist Church at 2001 Wylie Ave. in the Hill District, near the starting point of the parade. The woman noticed smoke coming...


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At 8:47 A.M. on Saturday, March 13, 2004, as the City of Pittsburgh was preparing for its annual St. Patrick?s Day parade, a woman was preparing breakfast at the Ebenezer Baptist Church at 2001 Wylie Ave. in the Hill District, near the starting point of the parade. The woman noticed smoke coming from an electrical outlet inside the church and called 911 to report a possible electrical fire in the church.

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Photo By David P. Novak
Fire vents out the first and second floors of the church. Five-inch hose supplies an engine as a ladder pipe on Ladder 4 is readied.

The City of Pittsburgh Emergency Operations Center (EOC) dispatched a first-alarm assignment for a possible structure fire. Engine 4, which was going to participate in the parade, was one of the first-due units on the initial alarm. One of the first companies to arrive on the scene, the crew from Engine 4 entered the church to investigate. Interior crews reported a moderate smoke condition inside the church. The Engine 4 crew advanced a line to the basement, where the electrical room is located. Once in the basement, crews encountered heavy smoke and high heat, and they began searching for the seat of the fire.

The district battalion chief requested a second alarm for additional manpower. Deputy Chief David Manfredo, who was already on his way to the scene when the second alarm was dispatched, arrived and assumed command. Manfredo gave the EOC an initial size-up: A very large stone church, approximately 75 by 75 feet, with a three-story attached addition as an exposure on the sector D side of the church. Command reported that crews were still searching for the seat of the fire.

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Photo By David P. Novak
Engine 4 and Engine 10 operate as heavy thick smoke vents from the church. Exterior streams operate on the A and D sides of the structure.

At Fire Station 4, numerous firefighters were donning their dress uniforms and preparing to march in the parade, which was to begin at 10 A.M. The firefighters listened to the progress of the fire on their radios, hoping that their comrades would locate the seat of the fire, quickly extinguish it and be back at the station in time to join them in the parade.

Interior crews in the church basement advised command that the fire appeared to be above them, between the basement ceiling and the floor of the sanctuary. They also reported that the smoke and heat conditions in the basement were intensifying, and requested that the crew from Truck 4 open up the floor in the sanctuary. At 9:15, command requested a third alarm for additional manpower, as crews were still having difficulty accessing the fire. Crews in the basement advised command that conditions were deteriorating rapidly and that they observed thick smoke being sucked in and out of the basement ceiling. Immediately, Manfredo ordered all crews out of the building.

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Photo By David P. Novak
A ladder pipe and ground monitor operate their streams into the church as Deputy Chief David Manfredo, the incident commander, surveys the scene. He was seriously injured during the collapse that occurred later in the incident.

Command advised the EOC to transmit the evacuation tones over the radio, as air horns sounded on the apparatus at the scene. As the additional alarms were being transmitted, the firefighters at Fire Station 4 filtered outside in front of the bay doors and gazed up on the hill, where they could see the billowing smoke.

Moments after the evacuation order was given, but before all of the firefighters could evacuate, a backdraft occurred, blowing out the stained-glass windows and the front door of the church. The force of the backdraft blew one firefighter off of a ladder and he received a wrist injury. Five other firefighters suffered minor burns. EMS evaluated the injured firefighters and transported them to a hospital, where they were treated and later released.

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Photo By David P. Novak
As the fire is knocked down, firefighters stretch hoselines that were to be left flowing inside the church unmanned. Note the destruction of the roof.
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