Rag-sparked dryer fires a previous issue at destroyed Cheswick business

| Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013, 1:26 a.m.

Cheswick firefighters had responded to Filter Service & Installation “several” times in the past for small dryer fires sparked by cleaning rags — the same issue that employees believe caused a fire that destroyed an industrial building in the borough on Tuesday afternoon.

A preliminary investigation of the blaze at 110 Cheswick Ave. revealed that the point of origin was a dryer in the business, said Alvin Henderson Jr., director of the Allegheny County Department of Emergency Services.

Cheswick's fire company last responded to a fire call at the business in March 2012.

“We talked to them and told them to be careful, like we would anybody else,” fire Chief Lindsay Sandusky said of the previous calls.

Ed Watson, who owns Filter Service, said rags in the dryers have started to smolder a few times in the past.

Watson, who owns the building that housed four businesses — Filter Service & Installation, Best Air Systems, Pro-Mech and 1st Fire Protection, said the building is a complete loss. A damage estimate is not available, he said.

The Allegheny County Fire Marshal's investigation is ongoing, but nothing suspicious had been found, said Don Brucker, chief deputy fire marshal.

According to employees, the fire started in a dryer containing rags used to clean restaurant hood exhaust systems.

Supervisor Paul King, who was in the building when the blaze broke out, 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.

Don Brucker, Allegheny County chief deputy fire marshal, said it is not unusual for rags with cooking oil on them to spontaneously combust.

“If it isn't laundered with enough soap to break up the oil, it's susceptible to spontaneous ignition,” he said. “We'd like to take any material still left in the dryer and send it to our crime lab to see if we can extract any cooking oils from it. That can tell you a lot.”

Hazardous materialsnot a problem

A hazardous materials team responded to the scene due to the presence of industrial-grade cleaning chemicals inside.

The chemicals were not on fire, but combustible items around them were burning, Henderson said.

The Allegheny County Health Department conducted air testing Tuesday evening and found nothing that would impact public health.

Water authorities in Harmar and Oakmont, both downstream from the fire, found nothing unusual in routine testing.

“I talked to the county (Wednesday) morning, and they're saying everything was contained on site, so there was no release into the river,” said Oakmont Water Authority plant manager Ed Adams.

The Municipal Authority of Harmar Township turned off intake pumps Tuesday night, said Joe McCollum, operations administrator. The shutoff was precautionary because the authority draws its water from wells, not river water, he said.

No governmental agency had oversight of how Filter Service stored and handled the chemicals due to the low quantity, officials said.

“This company, because of the low quantity they would have, were not required officially to report their chemical holdings,” Henderson said, “… but they had to provide the material safety data sheets when (emergency responders) arrived on the scene.”

4 firefighters hurt, including siblings

Ten fire companies responded to the scene.

Four firefighters were injured. Originally, officials said two were hurt.

All were doing well on Wednesday, their fire chiefs said.

Among the most severely injured were Cheswick firefighter Heather Sandusky, who was treated in UPMC Mercy hospital in Pittsburgh for burns on her hands and arms; and Frazer firefighter Zack Shupe, who twisted his knee when his leg went through the second-level floor boards.

Sandusky's father, fire Chief Lindsay Sandusky, said his daughter is resting at home. Her brother, Josh Sandusky, suffered from smoke inhalation, Sandusky said.

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

Trying to keep working

Meanwhile, employees were doing what they could to keep the businesses going despite the lack of office space.

Employees from Pro-Mech (Professional Mechanical Sales and Service) set up computers and phones at makeshift work stations inside a large warehouse the company uses to store supplies.

The company planned to move the temporary offices into portable trailers until repairs are made, said Pro-Mech Vice President Ron Krhovsky.

A number of ash-covered computer towers sat on the floor in hopes that the data stored on them could be saved. Blackened and water-damaged file folders were stacked on shelves.

Most of the company's files are stored on a “cloud” network of remote computer servers hosted on the Internet.

King and two other Filter Service & Installation employees sat at a round table in the parking lot after moving out computers and other salvageable items. The rest went untouched so the insurance company could evaluate the damage.

“We're doing the best we can to get the business up and running,” King said. “We care about this business.”

Jodi Weigand is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4702 or jweigand@tribweb.com.

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