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Lawsuit filed in double fatal condo fire

| Friday, Jan. 23, 2009

PITTSBURGH -...The parents of a Rostraver man who died in a 2008 fire in a Seven Springs Mountain Resort condominium have filed suit alleging negligence.

The suit, which seeks in excess of $25,000 in damages, was brought last month in Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas by attorneys James R. Freeman and Michael T. Collis, of Wilkes & McHugh, on behalf of Thomas and Mary Lou Murt, of Lee Drive in Rostraver.

The blaze, which originated in a living-room fireplace, began in the early-morning hours of Jan. 27 last year and swept through the four-story condo, killing the Murts' son, Jonathan M. Murt, 22, also of Lee Drive, and his girlfriend, Sasha A. Zuro, 26, of 346 Krolik Ave. in Washington Township.

The suit alleges negligence on behalf of all the listed defendants, including owner Bart Raitano, of 74 Hillcrest Drive, Charleroi; Sunridge Condominium Association Inc.; CFM U.S. Corp.'s Majestic, a division of Majco Building Specialties LP; and Barry Fitzgerald, of Fitzgerald Chimney Cleaning.

Also listed among the defendants is Anthony William Valkanas, of 302 Oxbridge Court, Pittsburgh, who, along with Murt and Zuro, was invited to spend the weekend at the condominium by the owner's son, Bart Raitano II.

The suit claims:

n The Sunridge Condominium Association knew there had been a previous fire in November 1993 at Unit 9, Building O, of Sunridge Condominiums, which resulted from improper design, installation and maintenance of the fireplace.

n The association failed to take proper steps to inspect the fireplaces in each of the condominium units or take remedial action to make them all safe.

n The fire that killed Murt occurred as a result of the defective design and maintenance of the Majestic fireplace in Unit F-10.

n Fitzgerald was aware from prior inspections of the fireplace in the condo that burned that it had a larger degree of creosote - a corrosive substance formed during the wood-burning process - in the chimney than in other units in the building, yet failed to warn Raitano or the Murts.

n The night of the deadly blaze, the fire in the firebox started the creosote burning in the chimney stack, enabling flames to escape and ignite wood around the stack and eventually engulf the condo.

n Valkanas had sat in front of the fireplace, where a fire was burning, and fell asleep. The owner of Unit F-11, Eric Della-Lucia, which was directly above Unit F-10, detected smoke coming into his unit and Della-Lucia warned Valkanas of the fire. Valkanas then went into the condo's kitchen, filled a pot with water, threw it on the flames and exited the condo.

The suit alleges that Murt died while attempting to rescue Zuro. Somerset County Coroner Wallace Miller said the victims died of asphyxiation because of smoke inhalation.

Upon review of the blaze, authorities at the time ruled the fire to be accidental.

"This was a preventable tragedy. Jonathan Murt was a graduate of West Virginia University with a degree in engineering and a good job. He had a bright future," attorney Jim Freeman said.

After the fire, Seven Springs Mountain Resort temporarily banned the use of fireplaces in its 19 long-term rental units. The resort already has a policy banning fireplace use in its short-term units, which are rented to customers for a week or weekend.

None of the defendants listed in the lawsuit nor Seven Springs officials could be reached for comment yesterday.

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