Fire hits Swissvale apartment building

091514-swissvale-apartment-fireBy Brian Bowling – photo by Andrew Russell – Trib Total Media

Sitting on a doorstep across the street from his burning home in Swissvale, Larry Knox said he was glad everyone got safely out of the three-story apartment building.

“Thank God, I’m out of there,” said Knox, who is visually impaired. “This young man named James on the second floor came and got me.”

Two firefighters suffered injuries while battling the four-alarm blaze on Saturday in the 2000 block of Monongahela Avenue, said fire Chief Clyde Wilhelm. He said he had no reports of any residents being injured.

Firefighters thought at first they had a roof fire, Wilhelm said. As it turned out, the blaze probably started on the second floor but quickly spread through the voids between the exterior and interior walls to the third floor.

An Allegheny County fire marshal is investigating the cause, he said.

One firefighter went by ambulance to UPMC Mercy for treatment of second- and third-degree burns on his neck, Wilhelm said. Emergency medical techs treated the other firefighter at the scene for minor injuries, he said.

Wilhelm asked Duquesne Light Co. to cut power to the neighborhood because high-voltage power lines pass in front of the building and posed a hazard to firefighters, he said.

Residents of the building huddled with one another and family members who arrived on the scene. One bright moment came when a firefighter walked out carrying two family photos.

Shirley Remaley, 72, whose daughter and granddaughter live in the building, said getting the photos back meant a lot to the family.

“I’m grateful that this was salvaged,” said her granddaughter Ariel Remaley, 23. She said she was walking her dog when she found out about the fire and hadn’t been able to get into the apartment.

Knox, who lives on the third floor, said he returned from getting lunch at 12:30 p.m. and was watching the Pitt football game when he heard what sounded like a firecracker.

His neighbor started pounding on his door.

James Thomas, 38, said he heard smoke detectors go off and stepped outside his apartment to see what was happening.

“The hallway was filing with smoke,” he said. “That’s when I started banging on doors.”

He tried Knox’s door but got no response. So he got his own family out and returned, knowing that Knox would have a hard time in finding his way out, Thomas said.

“I guided him down the steps and across the street,” he said.

Modern buildings have horizontal studs at every floor, which hinders the spread of fire. The apartment building was constructed by using an older method with vertical framing that provides a natural path for fire, Wilhelm said.

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“The fire ran through the walls and up to the roof,” the chief said.

The fire kept shifting and forced firefighters outside at one point, he said.

“We had a hard time fighting this fire,” Wilhelm said.

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