Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire Chief Charlie Dickinson Personnel: 890 career firefighters Apparatus: 30 engine companies, 11 ladder companies, three quints Population: 550,000 Area: 55.3 square miles The thick black smoke obliterating downtown Pittsburgh's skyline meant trouble for the...
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Firefighters weren't about to let the landmark burn. Built in 1893, part of it had gone up in flames in 1897 but was rebuilt the following year (see "Rekindles," page 96). Horne's not only had served Pittsburgh shoppers as a department store but it was an old-time gathering place, especially at Christmas, when it raised a large Christmas tree on one corner of its building. Its lighting traditionally kicked off the city's holiday season. The store closed in 1995 to relocate and the building was being redeveloped. "Saving this building was of paramount importance," Dickinson wrote in his after-action report.
But the fire started at perhaps the worst time of day for city firefighters, lunch in the Golden Triangle where the city's Allegheny and Monongahela rivers merge into the Ohio River. The area, the heart of the central business district, is sprinkled with tourists, shops and restaurants. Emergency equipment began stacking up on jammed streets, which run at crazy angles because of the triangle shape.
Police closed roads and pushed onlookers back as explosions continued on the roof, shooting cylinders 25 feet in the air. (Firefighters initially believed the cylinders were filled with propane.)
"The incident, in kind of a play on words, exploded. It just continued to grow in intensity," Dickinson said.
Photo by Mark Himber
The city's dispatch system covers only five alarms, so command asked for two additional truck companies on special calls to the smoky fire.
Fire involved about 40 percent of the roof and was spreading like a dry prairie fire from Sector 2 toward the center, dropping through holes to the eighth floor. Radiant heat was threatening the thermal plant in Sector 3, separated from the incident building by Cecil Way, only a 10-foot-wide alley. That six-story building also houses Duquesne Light Co., which operated the generator in the alley. A 10-inch natural gas main was attached to the outside wall facing the flames;d another substation was on a roof. "All the elements of a serious fire were there," Dickinson said. "We all know in this business that a building that is opened up, going through renovations, is almost like a patient on an operating table that's exposed to surgery. The rest of the body is at risk because of the intrusion."
Companies now were arriving on the second and third alarms. Truck 6 was assigned to Sector 2 and placed its ladder pipe in operation on the thermal plant to protect it. Engine 6 assisted. Engine 24 laid a five-inch supply line to Sector 1 for additional water. Engine 7 on the third-alarm laid a similar line to Sector 2 to join the roof attack. Engine 10 assumed Sector 3 command and directed the exposure operations.
Fire was continuing to spread but the rescue was complete. Teams had climbed the aerial to the seventh floor and hoofed it to the roof through a stairwell. They found four workers and led them down a smoky stairwell to the street. Two other workers found their own way down. But that success was met with perhaps a greater glitch Engine 4 had connected to the seventh-floor standpipe in Sector 1 but found it dry. (Bureau regulations require a standpipe to be operable up to the floor where work is being done; in this case, that would be all the way to the top.)
Construction workers told fire command all four standpipes were down. Fire crews began dragging hoses up the aerials, then through stairwells to the roof, as the utilities were shut off, disabling elevators. The ceilings on each floor were about 20 feet high, Hirosky said, much higher than modern buildings. That made the Horne's building seem about 12 stories tall instead of eight, and it was about 40 minutes into the fire before the first attack team began operations on the roof. Aerial streams already were being applied in Sector 3.
Hirosky and Assistant Chief Pete Micheli arrived at 12:45 P.M. Micheli assumed command, then relinquished it to Dickinson five minutes later. Micheli was assigned command of Sectors 1 and 4, with Hirosky assuming Sectors 2 and 3. Battalion Chief Roger Short arrived at 12:55 P.M. and was assigned roof command as the on-call hazardous materials coordinator. Command wanted hazardous materials expertise on the roof to assess the problem of hazmat involvement.
Hirosky went to his new post and found fire raking across the alley to the thermal and electric building, impinging on open windows and a lower roof.
"It was like molten lava falling off the roof," Hirosky said. "That's what we had dropping down into the eighth floor."