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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Moments after the backdraft, command requested a fourth alarm for additional manpower and water supply. At least two aerials were set up for master stream operations, and several mounted and portable deck guns were put into operation, as were several handlines. Heavy smoke billowed from all sides of the large stone church.

Despite the raging fire, the parade went on as scheduled. As bag pipers marched, playing their pipes, smoke plumed in the distance. As firefighters marched along the parade route into downtown Pittsburgh, their comrades continued to battle the intense blaze. Flames leaped from the steep church roof and thick, black smoke could be seen for miles as the roof burned off of the church. For the next two hours, firefighters poured water through the windows and into the large opening created when the roof burned off, as other firefighters protected the attached exposure.

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Photo By David P. Novak
Hotspots are extinguished from the sidewalk area. Note the bell tower and windows. Apparently, there were Plexiglass covers over the stained-glass windows. Some of these covers melted and certain windows were not vented.

For the most part, the flames were darkened and the smoke had turned to steam by noon. Shortly after noon, Battalion Chief Charles Brace led several firefighters into the vestibule of the church. Their assignment was to set up free-flowing hoselines in strategic places within the structure to douse pockets of fire that were still burning under the debris from the roof and sanctuary, which had collapsed into the basement.

Without warning, at 12:19, the church bell tower collapsed, sending large timbers, bricks and other debris crashing through the vestibule and sanctuary and into the basement. Stones and bricks showered onto the street below, striking several firefighters and pinning them to the ground. Manfredo was one of the firefighters struck by the falling debris, and was seriously injured. Assistant Chief Arthur George immediately assumed command and requested a fifth alarm for manpower, due to the numerous injured firefighters.

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Photo By David P. Novak
Note the damage to the Plexiglass window covers. Firefighters were in the process of bringing hoselines into the second floor that were to be left in place and flowing on the burning roof materials that dropped into the main church.

It was discovered that two members, Brace and Master Firefighter Richard Stefanakis were missing and believed to be trapped under the rubble in the church. Firefighters, some using just their hands, others using axes, pike poles, pry bars and other tools, dug through the debris in an effort of rescuing their comrades. Several City of Pittsburgh EMS units rushed to the scene. EMS supervisor requested several additional ambulances and rescue trucks from outside agencies. In all, 28 firefighters were injured in the collapse. They were evaluated by EMS and transported to local hospitals.

The Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) Strike Force based in Latrobe, in Westmoreland County, was called to the scene to assist in rescue efforts. The team is comprised of numerous advanced-level rescuers from various counties as well as 24 City of Pittsburgh EMS, paramedics and firefighters, who were already on the scene.

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Photo By David P. Novak
Pittsburgh EMS members, in bright gear, treat firefighters after the bell tower collapsed. Note the heavy beams in the lower right window.

Shortly after 2 P.M., rescuers located the bodies of Brace, 55, and Stefanakis, 51, buried beneath the rubble. It took rescuers two more hours of digging to reach them. Firefighters remained on the scene until late in the night. A large crane was brought in to knock down several walls, as there was a danger that they too would collapse.

In the days following the fire, investigators from the City of Pittsburgh Arson Squad, Allegheny County Fire Marshal?s Office and federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) began work to determine the cause of the fire. Ebenezer Baptist Church, a historical landmark, was built in 1873. A fire tore through the church in 1976, causing $300,000 in damages. The church was rebuilt after that fire.

Brace joined the Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire in 1973. He moved up through the ranks and was promoted to battalion chief in 1997. Stefanakis joined the bureau in 1974.