1 dead in Shadyside fire, victim was set to be evicted, sheriff says

| Thursday, March 21, 2013, 7:51 a.m.

A Shadyside man hours away from eviction to end a 15-year legal battle with his condo association set off an explosion in the building on Thursday that killed him and forced neighbors to evacuate, officials said.

Pittsburgh firefighters found Mark A. Williams, 60, dead in the bedroom of his fifth-floor unit in the nine-story Amberson Towers Condominiums on Bayard Road. Two people were hospitalized with smoke inhalation.

Investigators believe Williams uncapped the gas line to his stove, causing an explosion about 7:15 a.m. when the fumes reached an ignition source, such as a space heater or other appliance, fire Chief Darryl Jones said.

“I woke when I heard an explosion that shook the walls,” said Tom Korpar, 24, a second-year dental student at the University of Pittsburgh. “My kitchen wall, which shared his kitchen wall, was blown in. I could see right into his kitchen. I guess I was lucky. I slept in today, otherwise I would have been right there in the kitchen, cooking eggs.”

Those who knew Williams described the former library worker as reclusive and troubled.

“He thought everyone was against him,” said Lisa Solomon, his Coldwell Banker agent. “It honestly doesn't surprise me, because I think the man felt like he had nowhere to go, no one to turn to.”

The blast cracked an exterior wall of the building, but an engineer said the damage was cosmetic, Jones said. The fire and blast damaged 126 of the complex's 191 units.

Jones was not sure how many people were displaced. The Red Cross said it would open a shelter if needed.

“It almost sounded like a pipe was bursting,” said Max Petrunya, 28, describing a thud he heard in his ninth-floor home. “The wall shook a little.”

Firefighters kept some people in their units as they attacked the fire, including a family with a baby that lived close to the scene of the blast.

“They were very brave,” Battalion Chief Tim Kopicko said of the family. “They didn't panic. They kept the door shut and kept by the window.”

Between 50 and 60 people went to the lobby, and a dozen more moved across the street to the Winchester Thurston School. Firefighters escorted people into the building floor-by-floor to retrieve belongings.

Williams put his condo up for sale last year to stave off a sheriff's sale, but turned down two offers, Solomon said. She described him as a “very depressed man” who didn't want to leave his home.

“I couldn't make him pick the pen up and sign,” Solomon said. “He said, ‘Where am I going to go? I have nowhere to go.' ”

His relatives could not be reached.

Korpar described Williams as “reclusive, very difficult to talk to” and said he had only spoken to him in passing two or three times in the year that he'd lived there. Neighbors said there was a confrontation between building management and Williams on Wednesday.

Amberson Towers Condominiums Association attorney Peter Nychis did not return a message seeking comment.

Williams' feud over fees finally was ending. The association bought his unit for about $1,900 through an Allegheny County Sheriff's Sale in June, court records show. Williams refused to leave and argued in court the association had no right to force the sale. Sheriff William P. Mullen said deputies planned to evict Williams on Thursday morning.

Williams bought the unit for $25,000 in 1997 through a first-time home-buyer program, court records show. The condo association began suing him in 1998, and by 2011, Williams said in a court filing that the association had tried four times to force his home into sheriff's sale for unpaid fees.

He wrote that the “(condo association's) goal is clear: acquiring (his) home cheaply through a sheriff sale, then evicting him ... and reap further lucrative benefits of a quick turnover ...” He said he had lost his job three years ago and was living off life savings the condo association had “already devastated.”

Williams was a former employee of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, where until 2008 he worked full-time in the inter-library department at the main branch in Oakland. The department is responsible for obtaining material not available in the Carnegie's collection from other libraries, according to a library spokeswoman, who declined further comment.

Margaret Harding and Tony LaRussa are a staff writers for Trib Total Media. Harding can be reached at 412-380-8519 or mharding@tribweb.com. LaRussa can be reached at 412-320-7987 or tlarussa@tribweb.com.

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