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Camera records rare fire ignited by hot, oily towels at new Penn Hills eatery

Dillon Carr
| Friday, Dec. 1, 2017, 5:09 p.m.

A fire that destroyed a Penn Hills restaurant Nov. 29 was started when hot cleaning towels, resting for hours in a laundry bin, spontaneously ignited.

“It's rare, but it happens more than people think,” Penn Hills Fire Marshal Chuck Miller said.

He ruled the morning fire at Soul & Sea Restaurant accidental after reviewing video from a surveillance camera in the restaurant that captured how the fire started.

Without the video, the fire would have been ruled “undetermined” because it destroyed evidence investigators needed to determine the cause.

The video shows restaurant owner Brittany Houser drop off a bin full of clean towels at the restaurant just after 11 p.m. after washing them at a nearby coin laundry, Miller said.

At about 2:19 a.m., smoke began to fill the room. Miller said the bin smoldered until 6:16 a.m. when flames appeared and began creeping up a wall. The camera was disabled by the fire at 6:34 a.m.

B-Sharp Hair Studio owner Darnell Cohen reported the fire at 6:38 a.m. as he drove in to open his shop in the mall. It took firefighters about 30 minutes to get the fire under control, Penn Hills fire Lt. Tom Kutcher said.

“I've seen about a dozen fires that started like that over 27 years,” Miller said. “The conditions have to be right.”

He said the rags were still hot from being dried minutes prior to being dropped off. He added that washing does not eliminate all of the oil from a rag that has been saturated.

“When you wash and dry them, that changes the chemical makeup of the oils, making them decompose faster,” he said.

Since the rags were stacked on top of each other in the bin, the heat was insulated. The ignition temperature of oil is 359 degrees Fahrenheit, Miller said.

Miller said towels, rags and clothes should go through a full cool-down cycle in the dryer before they are piled into a bin or placed in a drawer.

“I didn't even know that was a possibility,” Houser said.

She hopes to get the restaurant back up and running, hopefully before summer 2018. The restaurant opened in July.

“I'm going to get a restaurant cleaning service. That's going to be way more beneficial to us,” she said.

Dillon Carr is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-871-2325, dcarr@tribweb.com or via Twitter @dillonswriting.

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