On The Job - Pittsburgh

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 city's fire bureau at 12:24 P.M. on July 9, 1996. It wasn't the long-gone steel mills firing up again.

Photo by John Schisler
Smoke pours from the vacant department store building.

"Someone came on the air and asked if we had anything working downtown," Fire Chief Charlie Dickinson said. "The answer was no. And the answer back was, 'You're gonna have!'"

The block-long roof of a vacant century-old landmark, the former Joseph Horne Co. department store, was in flames. A welder had ignited it while dismantling a sign during renovations to turn the eight-story high-rise at Stanwix Street and Penn Avenue into offices and retail space.

Six construction workers were trapped on the roof. Twenty-pound canisters of pressurized adhesive were exploding like Roman candles, shooting flaming sticky goo onto the side of the adjacent county thermal heat plant and onto an electrical substation below. About 75 people were lunching in a restaurant on the building's first-floor, unaware of the chaos outside. Hundreds more were roaming the streets, on lunch break in Pittsburgh's Golden Triangle.

First-arriving Deputy Chief Dan Hennessy didn't know the building's four standpipes were disconnected, a fire code violation. But he did know the front of the roof was cut open for construction of an atrium down to the second floor, a perfect channel for fire to spread into the heart of a building that was considered the cornerstone of revitalizing downtown Pittsburgh.

"There certainly have been other fires in our histories here that have had far more devastating results and outcomes," Dickinson said. "But what it did have...is all the risks that makes our work difficult."

About 100 workers inside the structure were evacuating on their own as first companies rolled in. They told Hennessy about the trapped workers, who were on a six-story section of the roof in Sector 4.

The chief sounded a second alarm at 12:29 P.M. He ordered Engine 4 to charge a standpipe in Sector 1 and to advance a 2 1/2-inch attack line to the roof via an interior stairwell. Engine 3 assisted. Engine 32 began search and rescue of the top floors. Truck 4 raised its 100-foot aerial ladder to the sixth-floor window as high as it reached to rescue the trapped workers, working with Engine 37. Truck 33 raised its aerial to the fifth floor above the former Horne's main doors for search and rescue on the fifth and sixth floors.

"The first-arriving personnel certainly had their hands full," said Robert Hirosky, deputy chief of administration, who arrived on scene with a later alarm.

Photo by Joseph Appel
A view of the burned rooftop and hazardous materials tanks, taken from an adjacent building.

Engine 5 stood by as the rapid intervention, or "Go," team. Engine 39, the safety unit, assumed its duties. A third alarm was called at 12:33 P.M. Fourth and fifth alarms were called simultaneously two minutes later.

"Fires aren't unusual, of course, but fires that are in this central business district that escalate quickly certainly grab everybody's attention in the whole system," Dickinson said. "And the whole system began to turn toward this incident."

Ninety-eight firefighters from 21 companies about half the city's on-duty firefighting resources eventually responded, with six chiefs. Usual transfers staffed empty stations, and the only other fire during the Horne's incident was a one-alarm garage fire on the South Side.

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."

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.

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

The first fire started at 2:01 P.M. on Oct. 8 in a heating and air conditioning unit on the roof of the middle building of a three-building religious complex. The fire building was the five-story Hyman Kaufman Community Building. To the right was the historic Beth Shalom Synagogue. To the left was the Halpern Education Center, two stories high.

Built in 1923 with additions in the 1950s and '70s, the Beth Shalom complex serves 1,200 families in the Squirrel Hill area's large Jewish community. Firefighters arrived to find heavy smoke rising from the community building's rear, the fire alarms sounding and about 100 staff members and pre-school students evacuating the school. Firefighters ensured everyone was outside, then entered. They saw no fire but felt tremendous heat when walking upright.

Companies hooked to a hose cabinet on the third floor and found the main body of fire in a fourth-floor gymnasium in the center of the community building that rose to the roof. They mounted an attack to prevent flames from spreading to the exposures through connecting stairwells.

Five alarms were called in. Emergency horns sounded at one point to clear all firefighters from hazardous parts of the building because of the fire's growing intensity. Exterior master streams were applied.

There was a "tremendous amount of heat because it's an open area that's two stories in height...and it was just difficult to get in," Fire Chief Charlie Dickinson said. "The game plan from there was to keep it from spreading to the temple, as well as the education center as both structures were connected to the fire building."

Offensive tactics resumed a short time later and the fire was declared under control at 4:11 P.M. Flames had not spread to either connecting structure but the synagogue sustained heavy smoke and light water damage. The Halpern Education Center sustained considerable water damage due to runoff from fire attack streams.

As the blaze was brought under control, fire command used congregation members to remove religious artifacts from the main synagogue and the school basement. The temple's 21 sacred scrolls, known as the Torah, were not damaged. Neither were artifacts at its Judaica museum. Lost in the fire, however, was a wooden alter facade and scrolls from another temple, the Homestead Hebrew Congregation. They were transplanted to Beth Shalom after it closed three years ago. No civilians were injured. Two firefighters received minor injuries. The loss was estimated at $1 million.

Eighty-three firefighters, including seven chiefs, responded from 15 engine companies, three truck companies, two support units and an arson unit.

"Overall, this was a well-fought fire in an extremely difficult building to operate in due to its large size and well-advanced fire conditions at the back of the auditorium stage area," Dickinson wrote in his after-action report. "Officers and firefighters worked hard and were successful limiting the fire to occupy only the center part of the complex."

The second fire started at 2:56 A.M. on Oct. 9 in the city's residential Homewood section, a few miles away on the same side of town, requiring the services of several of the same companies.

A stolen sport utility vehicle left on cinder blocks was set on fire by the thieves about 100 feet down Cressey Way from Hill Avenue. A security guard at an adjacent construction company tried to extinguish it but was overwhelmed. Engine 17 stretched an attack line down the alley and quickly quenched the flames. It was then that the smoke was seen coming from the corrugated metal wall covering of the building attached to the main office of the construction company. Engine 17 requested a full zone response because the car fire had spread to the warehouse.

As the alarm was transmitted, an explosion rocked the 250-foot-long warehouse where flammable construction chemicals were stored, and fire was seen venting from the roof 150 feet into the dark night sky. Engine 17 hooked to a hydrant and a second attack line was laid to the interior warehouse through a garage door in Sector 1. It was only used briefly, however, as explosions continued and crews were ordered out. The Sector 2 wall collapsed and attention turned to protecting the exposures, a series of rowhomes on Rosedale Avenue, until help came.

Engine 15 arrived and upon seeing the fire, called out second and third alarms. Two firefighters banged loudly on the doors of darkened homes to evacuate residents not already out watching the growing conflagration. The company deployed their portable deck gun at the fire blowing toward them. Propane, gasoline, acetylene, adhesives, solvent, paints and drums of urethane were within the building and explosions continued. Other arriving companies set up but were forced to relocate and take a defensive approach as the flames intensified and advanced. Collapse zones were established and the fire re-sectored, focusing on the exposures because firefighters believed the construction company was fully engulfed and could incur no further loss.

Second- and third-alarm units used aerial streams on the main fire and focused on exposures. Fire extended from the warehouse to the office, then to three 2 1/2-story homes. The intense heat melted vinyl and insulbrick siding on homes 100 feet away.

Two more alarms were sounded, the most in the system, plus a special request for more equipment. An interior attack was mounted and the fire was contained and extinguished by 7:09 A.M. Three firefighters suffered minor injuries and six residents were left homeless.

Ninety-two firefighters, including eight chiefs, responded from 15 engine companies and four truck companies, plus a support and arson unit. Damage to the construction company, six homes and three garages was placed at $1.1 million.

Paul Muschick

Paul Muschick covers the Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.