ATF: Heights Plaza fire loss in excess of $10 million; businesses recovering

Chuck Biedka
| Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012, 11:30 a.m.

Monday's spectacular fire caused millions of dollars of damage to the Heights Plaza Shopping Center in Harrison, but most of the loss was to the facade.

So the majority of the affected businesses are making plans to reopen well before Christmas.

In fact, two of the businesses in the widely known Natrona Heights strip mall reopened at about 1 p.m. Tuesday.

About nine other store owners were cleaning up and working to get permits to reopen — perhaps as soon as this week.

But the UPMC-Natrona Heights Multispecialty offices, located in the former Macy's Department Store building, and Dollar Bank appeared to be heavily damaged.

Almost 300 volunteer firefighters from 30 companies were able to contain the damage largely to the sprawling shopping center's facade, which was hard to reach, according to Sean Jones, fire chief from Citizens Hose Company, Harrison.

A Highland Hose firefighter and a fire policemen were sent to Allegheny Valley Hospital in Harrison on Monday night for chest pain. They were admitted for observation.

Another firefighter was treated and released from AVH for nausea, Jones said. He didn't have their names.

Firefighters called the Allegheny County hazardous materials team on Monday night to check for radiation or chemicals inside the 10,000-square-foot UPMC-Natrona Heights Multispecialty offices, which opened the summer of 2011.

“Nothing bad was found, and we were able to get inside (safely),” Jones said.

Also at the fire cleanup Tuesday was James Tanda, agent in charge of the Pittsburgh office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. He said the blaze caused “in excess of $10 million” in damages.

Tanda said federal authorities are investigating the cause and origin of the blaze with the Allegheny County fire marshal's office because of the amount of damage to commerce.

Also, one of the businesses damaged was a government-insured Dollar Bank branch.

“Damage is in the millions, yes. But we are seeing it wasn't as bad as it looked Monday night,” said Don Brucker, Allegheny County's chief deputy fire marshal. “This could have been a lot worse. In a very short time, we had a very big fire.”

Most of the businesses sustained little interior damage — a surprise to anyone who saw flames roaring, smoke billowing and embers leaping high into the sky on Monday night.

By daylight Tuesday, it was clear that most of the spectacular flames involved the multi-tiered facade.

Brucker said the fire apparently started in a triangular facade.

He said the cause was likely electrical, but remains under investigation.

New and older light fixtures, some neon light power sources and multiple bundles of wires were tough to reach inside the void behind the facade, according to Brucker.

The fire spread horizontally through that void and reached the edge of the roof where it was largely stopped by firefighters, Brucker said.

Firefighters put out at least three smaller facade fires at the plaza before Monday's major fire, Brucker said.

In Tuesday's early-morning drizzle, much of the facade was melted or twisted and adjacent wood framing was charred.

The blaze was so intense that some steel I-beams were warped.

“Look at that,” Brucker said. “It takes 500 to 700 degrees to do that.”

Although much of the facade burned, some of the affected businesses sustained only smoke and water damage of varying degrees because of the firefighters' efforts, Brucker said.

“One of our main goals is to get as many businesses as possible open by the end of the week,” Brucker said, after climbing to the top of a fire department truck ladder to get a look at the roof behind the facade.

Harrison police provided security for Dollar Bank.

The branch sustained “significant water damage to the bank branch in the row of shops, but will continue to operate its stand-alone ATM and drive-through bank service in the Heights Plaza parking lot,” said spokesman Joseph B. Smith.

The cash on site and client records were secured in a vault, he noted, which was guarded until it could be moved.

“We've been in that facility for years and years,” Smith said. “We have to see how extensive the damage is.

“We're going to stay there, or as close to there, as we can.”

Smith didn't know how long it would take to reopen or the estimated cost of the damage.

Township police and private security officers were guarding medical records at UPMC-Natrona Heights Multispecialty.

Doctors' offices were in the facility included cardiologists, primary-care physicians and Ob-gyn clinics.

UPMC spokeswoman Susan Manko said all patients are being told to contact their doctor's office for instructions on where to go in the short term for care.

Manko said that meetings were scheduled for Tuesday to discuss where the physicians will see patients in the long term.

“We don't know truly the exact, full extent of the damage inside,” she said.

By 1 p.m., electrical service was restored to parts of the plaza and Dunham's opened its doors — literally — to remove any remaining smoke.

Next door, Vic Quinio, his friend and a cleaning crew swabbed down his barbershop. When the electrical service returned, the “Open” sign was turned on at the shop, which opened in the plaza in 1968.

The fire's timing is particularly tough for barbers, he said.“This is usually the best week of the year,” Quinio said. “People are getting ready for Christmas and they want to look their best. After Christmas, our business really drops off. We need to make our money now.”

Elsewhere in the plaza, J&S Pizza was planning to reopen within days, said owner Debora Malvone, daughter of founder Vincenzo Malvone.

“We're just waiting for the permits,” she said. “We have the Health Department permit already. We only got smoke. We lost electricity, so we shipped out what frozen food we could to save it.

“We have a loyal following during the past 35 years, and we want to get open as soon as possible,” she said about the shop, which employs at least 35.

Nearby, construction crews huddled in front of Dollar Bank and within minutes, hammers and high-speed saws could be heard inside.

At the end of the plaza, work was under way to remove smoke from the First Commonwealth Bank branch.

Officials are planning to open as scheduled for Wednesday, according to Mark Chini, vice president and regional manager for the Pittsburgh/Allegheny Valley region.

Next door, Little Caesar's Pizza employees were rewashing the pizza shop.

“We hope to open Wednesday. We just need to ventilate the smoke,” said Manager Jinger Wilkins.

As the mid-afternoon sun replaced the rain, crews were using heavy equipment to pull down the remnants of the facade and to place the twisted rubble into large dump trucks to be hauled away.

Chuck Biedka is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4711 or Freelance writer Kate Wilcox contributed to this report.

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