5 Buildings Burned in Homestead Fire

Jan 23, 2015

Five buildings burned as part of an early Friday apartment fire that spread to neighboring structures in the business district of a poorer suburb of Pittsburgh.

There were no immediate reports of injuries. Two residents rescued from a second-story window of the apartment building in Homestead were taken to a hospital for evaluation, but it wasn't clear if they were injured, said Alvin Henderson, chief of emergency services for Allegheny County.

Henderson, who also serves as the county's fire marshal and will be investigating the blaze, said it was too soon to know what may have sparked the fire.

The blaze began in the apartment building about 4:30 a.m., Henderson said. He didn't immediately know how many units were in the building, but said that some of the neighboring structures that burned had storefronts on the borough's main business district along East 8th Avenue and might also have had rental units on upper floors. It wasn't immediately clear how many total housing units were damaged or destroyed, or even how many were rented out or occupied when the fire broke out, but Henderson said the American Red Cross was assisting those who needed shelter.

At least four people safely exited the burning apartment building in addition to the two rescued from a window. A seventh resident was thought to be missing, but crews accounted for that person later in the morning.

For now, the biggest problem is the stability of some of the structures. At least one structure is so unstable that East 8th Avenue will be closed indefinitely. That's because only the front of the building is standing, and it's no longer supported by side walls which have collapsed, Henderson said.

The remains of that building will have to be torn down before the street can reopen, likely along with a second building that partially collapsed. A third building is so badly damaged it may have to be razed, too, but it's not a threat to topple into the street, Henderson said.

"It's like losing a family member," Homestead Mayor Betty Esper told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review at the scene. "I feel so sorry for the business people who are trying so hard to bring this area back together."

Walt Viola, of Wilkins Township, owns one of the damaged buildings and had just renovated it to house a tax preparation office.

"Unbelievable," the owner of the tax business, Brian Vandusen, told the newspaper. "We just opened — just opened. We just got brand-new computers."

Henderson said county officials are working with the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency and the Small Business Administration to see whether any of the landlords or business owners might qualify for low-interest loans or other financial assistance.

Power was also out in the immediate area because several utility poles were damaged. They'll be fixed as soon as it's safe for crews to access those areas, Henderson said.

"The main thoroughfare, 8th Avenue, will be closed down for quite some time," Henderson said. Fortunately, traffic can be detoured relatively easy.

Homestead, a community of 3,100 residents, is about six miles from downtown Pittsburgh.