On The Job - Pittsburgh

Paul Muschick recounts a major fire that threatened to destroy the former Joseph Horne Co. department store, a local landmark.


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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He met with construction company foremen, who told him what the roof hazards were: two tanks of oxygen, maybe 100 five-gallon buckets of cold adhesive, dozens of 20-pound cylinders of adhesive pressurized with nitrogen, one acetylene tank, 50-plus rolls of rubber roofing membrane and stacks of Styrofoam-based roof sheeting. There was a propane line leading from the eighth floor to the roof, feeding the torch that caused the fire.

Most of the items were petroleum based, sending blinding and choking black smoke across the city and reminding witnesses of Pittsburgh's "Dark Age," when steel mills spit out columns of sooty smoke dark enough to require car headlights at noon and businessmen to change white shirts at lunch. Officials asked downtown high-rises to shut off outside air-intakes to avoid breathing problems. One person was treated on the 30th floor of the Oliver Building, several blocks away.

As Hirosky learned about the construction materials, Micheli was meeting with other foremen to account for all construction workers. Several subcontractors were in the building and each foreman had been taking a head count of workers from among the thousand or so people cramming sidewalks looking up. It took about 15 minutes to compile the good news that everyone was out.

"The main crux of the whole attack was find out where the people are, and in the meantime we find out we had no water," Micheli said. "Then we had to start the process of getting water up there."

Engine 12 connected a five-inch supply line and joined Engines 6 and 24 in advancing a 2 1/2-inch attack line into the thermal plant and electric building. Working from a roof about 15 feet below the Horne's building, they extinguished the flaming residue blowing onto the exposure and also put a line on the Horne's roof.

When the roof fire attack teams finally hit the fire at its source, the streams knocked five-gallon containers of burning glue over the side, providing more work for the exposure teams. Some debris did fall onto the electric substation in the alley, blowing it out.

Fifth-alarm Engines 19 and 21 and Truck 8 relieved the first- and second-alarm companies. The city's dispatch system covers only five alarms, so command requested two additional trucks on special calls at 12:56 and 1:16 P.M. Engines 35 and 38 also relieved early arrivals.

The fire was contained to the eight-story section of roof by 2 P.M., with complete extinguishment an hour later. Damage was limited to the roof and eighth floor directly below it, with estimates at $500,000. No civilians were hurt. Three firefighters suffered minor injuries heat exhaustion, debris in an eye and a cut hand.

New details emerged about how the fire started. At 11:30 A.M., about an hour before the first alarm, construction workers cutting down a large steel sign saw smoke coming from a stack of roof insulation board. Wet fire blankets were used to smother the fire. After about 20 minutes, all workers left the roof for lunch. They returned 15 minutes later to find the fire wasn't out but was spreading near the elevator penthouse. They didn't immediately call 911 but instead tried to put it out with fire extinguishers and garden hoses. The first call to 911 came from a police lieutenant who saw the smoke from some distance. More than 50 calls followed.

"What the time lapse was, how long it was burning, we don't know," Dickinson said.

The fire bureau fined a suburban Pittsburgh contractor renovating the building $1,000 and the developer $100 for not maintaining a standpipe. Micheli also said if workers had stayed on the scene of the first smoldering fire for at least 30 minutes as required to make sure it was out, the roof may not have ignited.

Firefighters kept a hoseline extended to the roof and stood fire watch until a standpipe was put in service the following day.

"Obviously, that building could have received far more damage than it did," Dickinson said. "That's a landmark building and cornerstone to continued redevelopment downtown. I just could not suggest the ramifications if that building had been severely damaged. I know it would have made a lot of people very unhappy. The officers and firefighters did a terrific job of limiting the damage under very trying conditions."

Million-Dollar Blazes Test Pittsburgh Firefighters

The fire in the former Joseph Horne Co. department store was not the only large and complex blaze the Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire faced last year. The bureau's resources also were tested twice at $1 million fires within 13 hours Oct. 8-9.

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Photo by Phil Pavely
Firefighters make their way through heavy smoke to attack the fire at the Beth Shalom Synagogue.