Flare Up, Collapse at Church Blaze Kills Two Pittsburgh Firefighters, Injures 29

Photos by David P. Novak - Incident On Scene Report

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Firefighters who thought they had a church fire under control were trapped when the building's roof collapsed Saturday. Two firefighters were killed and 29 were injured, five seriously.

There had been no sign of structural problems at Ebenezer Baptist Church before its steeple toppled as firefighters doused hot spots, Fire Chief Peter Micheli said. The steeple crashed into the 131-year-old church's basement, where both dead firefighters were found, Micheli said. Firefighters at the scene removed their helmets and turned off warning lights on their vehicles in tribute as each body was removed.

Five firefighters suffered serious or critical head and chest injuries, said city Operations Director Bob Kennedy. At least one was undergoing surgery, four others needed to be hospitalized, Kennedy said.

The cause of Saturday morning's blaze appeared to an electrical fire in the basement ``that jumped up the walls and spread rapidly,'' Kennedy said.

The senior pastor of the church, the Rev. J. Van Alfred Winsett, told Pittsburgh television stations that the congregation was preparing for a breakfast when the fire started.

Some firefighters were injured when the blaze flashed over, knocking one off a ladder and causing minor burns to the faces of five others, Micheli said. Most were hurt about an hour later when the steeple toppled, taking much of the roof with it.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and other agencies will investigate the cause of the fire and how it was fought, Kennedy said.

Firefighters Richard A. Stefanakis, 51, and Charles G. Brace, 55, both of Pittsburgh, died in the blaze, the Allegheny County Coroner's Office said. Brace was a battalion chief. Autopsies were scheduled for Sunday.

Micheli said he was at a loss about what to say to the victims' families.

``You have to go through it to know what they're going through,'' Micheli said. ``No matter what you say or try to say, it's devastating.''

Additional Details from the Associated Press

Both firefighters who perished were trapped in the rubble. One was located by his Personal Alert Safety System alarm, a device attached to the life support system that sends out a loud sound if the firefighter is immobilized for a short period of time.

The other firefighter also had an alarm, but rescue crews did not use it after determining that he was in an area of the building where he could not have survived.

First Report From the Scene

Special to Firehouse.com

On Saturday, March 13, 2004 shortly after 9:00a.m. City of Pittsburgh EOC received a report of a possible electrical fire in the Ebenezer Baptist Church, located at 2001 Wylie Avenue in the Hill District neighborhood of the City of Pittsburgh.

First arriving crews reported heavy smoke inside a large, 75'x75' church, with a possible fire in the basement. Crews advanced attack lines to the basement, where they discovered very heavy smoke and heat conditions and were searching for the seat of the fire.

Command requested a 2nd alarm assignment for additional manpower. Interior crews in the basement advised command that the fire appears to be above them, in the ceiling area.

Within minutes, the 3rd alarm was struck for additional manpower, as crews were having difficulty locating the seat of the fire. As conditions inside the church continued to rapidly deteriorate, command ordered all crews out of the building at approximately 9:25a.m.

As the last of the crews were evacuating, a flashover occurred, injuring several firefighters. The injured firefighters were rushed to local hospitals, there condition was not known at the time of this article.

Command requested a 4th alarm assignment at approximately 9:34a.m. At this time, a defensive attack was established, with numerous aerial master streams, deck guns and hose lines in operation.

Approximately 75 firefighters battled the intense flames for several hours, before knocking down the main body of fire. At approximately 12:20p.m. crews were able to re-enter the heavily damaged church, to begin dousing the hot spots.

Approximately 7 minutes later, without warning, tragedy struck. The church collapsed, sending large timbers to crash through the floors and into the basement, as well as bricks and concrete block crashing to the street below, striking and injuring approximately 25-30 firefighters on the ground, and trapping 2 firefighters deep beneath the rubble inside the church.

City of Pittsburgh EMS along with multiple outside EMS agencies rushed the injured firefighters to numerous hospitals and trauma centers in the area. An immediate search was underway for the two unaccounted for firefighters.

Multiple rescuers including a USAR Strike Team from Westmoreland County, rushed to the scene to assist in searching for the trapped firefighters. The team is also is compromised of 24 Pittsburgh EMS Paramedics and Firefighters who were also on the scene and assisted in the recovery efforts.

Shortly after 2:00p.m. Search crews located the bodies of the two firefighters beneath the mounds of rubble.

Funeral Information

Visitation for Charles G. Brace is at the L. Beinhauer & Son Funeral Home at 2630 West Liberty Ave, Dormont, PA. 15216. Burial will be at the Queen of Heaven Cemetary.

Richard A. Stefanakis