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Fire rips through Monongahela salvage yard

| Friday, April 5, 2013, 7:01 p.m.
Rick Bruni
Monongahela firefighters and six other companies battle a salvage yard fire at Pitt Mon Auto in Monongahela.
Rick Bruni | The Valley Independent
Carroll Township Assistant Fire Chief Mike Cramer battles a fire at Pitt-Mon Auto Salvage in Monongahela on Friday, April 5, 2013.
Rick Bruni
Salvage yard fire in Monongahela.
Washington County fire at Pitt Mon Auto Salvage in Monongahela.

A fire ripped through a Monongahela salvage yard Friday afternoon, consuming piles of scrapped cars and pouring thick, black smoke into the air that could be seen for miles.

Firefighters from six companies battled the blaze for two hours as the sound of small explosions echoed through the rear lot at Pitt-Mon Auto Salvage.

No injuries were reported at the business on Stockdale Avenue, just off State Route 481.

Monongahela Chief Frank Hnatik said he could not determine the cause of the fire, which broke out after 4 p.m.

Hnatik said he heard someone might have been working with a saw or other tools nearby, but added that was only speculation. Business owner Rick Schlieper was not available for comment.

“When we got the call, it was for five cars on fire, but it spread pretty quickly with all the plastic materials within the vehicles,” Hnatik said.

“Plastics burns hot. … From the time we were here, it probably spread through three rows (of cars). We couldn't see when we pulled in what the depth of the fire was.”

The secluded lot is bordered by a creek on the Route 481 side and railroad tracks on the other side. Above a hillside beyond the tracks, an upper junkyard contains junked school buses.

Hnatik said firefighters initially had to extinguish flames that spread from across the tracks and up the hill for fear the buses would catch fire.

“When we pulled in, we had the hillside on fire, spreading to the upper junkyard … so our first priority was to cool down the hillside first and get the cars second,” he said.

Hnatik said authorities contacted Norfolk Southern Corp. to stop train traffic in the area.

After extinguishing the outer blaze, firefighters blasted water from pump and tanker trucks and an outside hydrant into the rows of cars. Individual firefighters then went pile to pile of vehicles, dousing the flames with handheld hoses.

The small explosions – which posed danger to firefighters battling individual fires by hand, Hnatik said – were likely from tires, air bags and other devices detonating from the high heat.

“We had several pieces of steel blowing out away from the vehicles,” the chief said.

Employee Chesney Smith said he was out front when the smoke began coming from the back. He and others used buckets of water in efforts to extinguish the blaze and used a forklift to move a few of the cars – until the wind began spreading the flames.

“That's when I got the heck out of there,” Smith said.

Delivery driver John Clark said he just returned to the business when he saw smoke.

“The boss came out and said grab some buckets, and I knew what happened right away,” Clark said.

Clark said the business removes fuel from junked vehicles. Neither Smith nor Clark said they knew how the fire started.

Firefighters from Monongahela, New Eagle, Carroll Township, Valley Inn, Fallowfield Township, Bentleyville and Gallatin-Sunnyside responded to the scene.

The Finleyville Volunteer Fire Company was called into New Eagle on standby while three units from Tri-Community Ambulance sat outside the salvage yard's front entrance.

A number of firefighters appeared exhausted, but none had been treated medically as of Friday evening.

Rick Bruni Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at rbruni@tribweb.com or 724-684-2635.

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