Fire destroys Cheswick building that housed 4 businesses

Brian C. Rittmeyer
| Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2013, 6:25 p.m.

Two volunteer firefighters were hurt on Tuesday afternoon battling a large fire that destroyed an industrial building in Cheswick containing four businesses.

The presence of industrial-grade cleaning chemicals triggered a hazardous materials response to the fire at 110 Cheswick Ave., but no mass evacuation was ordered, said Alvin Henderson Jr., chief of the Allegheny County Department of Emergency Services.

Two nearby homes were evacuated as a safety measure because of fire equipment in the area, he said.

As a precaution, the Allegheny County Health Department would be testing the air in the area, Henderson said. Preliminary tests showed no cause for concern, he said.

Water authorities downstream on the Allegheny River were advised to monitor their intakes, also as a precaution.

The Allegheny County Fire Marshal was investigating and would be interviewing employees and first-arriving firefighters, Henderson said.

According to employees, the fire started in a dryer at Filter Service & Installation that was being used in cleaning rags that had been used to clean restaurant exhaust vents.

The fire was reported at the location, on the boundary between Cheswick and Harmar, shortly after 4:30 p.m.

It produced a thick column of black smoke that rose into the bright, blue afternoon sky. Flames at times were through the roof, which appeared to collapse.

Firefighters from nearly a dozen departments spent about three hours to get the blaze under control.

The building housed four businesses — Filter Service & Installation, Best Air Systems, Pro-Mech and 1st Fire Protection.

Ed Watson said he once owned all of the businesses; he now owns Filter Service and Best Air. He said he has owned the property for 13 years.

Watson said he had just gotten back to his home in Richland when he received a call about the fire and went back.

“I'm kind of lost,” he said after taking shelter behind a neighboring building as smoke and debris started to reach ground level. “I've never been through something like this. It always happens to other people.”

Watson said he occasionally noticed rainbows in the smoke as firefighters poured water onto the building. He said it looked like a complete loss.

“Nobody got hurt, that's the main thing,” he said.

The fire appears to have started in one of two dryers being used by Filter Services, according to employees.

Paul King, a supervisor at Filter Service, said he was the last of about a dozen people to get out of the building.

King said rags used to clean hood exhaust systems in restaurants were in the dryer.

“We use them time and time again. They fall apart from use,” he said.

He said a fire started in one of the dryers and was believed to have been extinguished.

But when the dryer was turned back on, King said there was a pop followed by an explosion, and the fire quickly spread out of control.

“It was fast,” he said.

Filter Service employee Curt Hubert said he was in the warehouse with two other workers when they heard an explosion. He said they got fire extinguishers to try to fight the flames.

“By the time we got back there, the ceiling was engulfed,” he said. Hubert said he tripped getting out of the building and hurt his ankle, but otherwise was OK.

Cheswick firefighter Heather Sandusky, daughter of fire Chief Lindsay Sandusky, suffered a burned hand and was taken to UPMC Mercy hospital in Pittsburgh. She was treated and released.

An East Deer firefighter suffered from shortness of breath and was checked in an ambulance at the scene.

Although the building stood directly behind a gas station on Pittsburgh Street, the gas station was never a concern, according to Henderson.

Electrical power was cut to the area, shutting down the gas station and affecting residents in the immediate area.

Shortly before 10 p.m., there were still 28 West Penn Power customers without electricity, 18 in Cheswick and 10 in Harmar.

Cheswick Mayor Dan Carroll said the fire may have been the largest to hit the borough since a lumber yard fire in the same area about 40 years ago.

“I'm thrilled to death no one was seriously injured,” Carroll said at the scene. “That was a doozy of a fire. It really was.”

Watson said he would rebuild.

Brian C. Rittmeyer is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4701 or

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