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5-alarm blaze rips through South Oakland building

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James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh firefighters battle a five-alarm fire in the 500 block of Zulema Street on Friday, March 29, 2013, in South Oakland.

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Friday, March 29, 2013, 8:30 a.m.

When Charlie Koch and his little sister emerged from their second-floor apartment, the smoke was so thick he could barely see for more than a foot.

His sister Blair went outside to call 911, and Charlie ran up the stairs to check on neighbors,

“I have a flashlight (app) on my phone, so I turned it on and went up,” said Koch, 27, a junior at the University of Pittsburgh. “I was banging on doors. I met people trying to get down (and) used the light to show them the stairs. ... The smoke was insanely bad. Black smoke. It just poured out.”

Koch and more than a dozen other Pitt students escaped a five-alarm fire on Friday morning in their apartment building in South Oakland. Flames raced through the three-story building on Zulema Street shortly before 8 a.m., forcing residents to flee through a heavy haze of black smoke.

None of the tenants in the six-unit, 15-bedroom building was injured, Pittsburgh fire Chief Darryl E. Jones said. One firefighter cut his hand but the injury was minor, Jones said.

“I just grabbed my laptop, shoved it in my backpack and got out of there,” said Brian DeWillie, 22, a senior at Pitt. “It was the scariest moment of my life.”

The roof collapsed into the building's third floor and caused major damage, Jones said.

Firefighters cleared apartments on the first and second floors, then “took a defensive position,” Jones said, explaining that they could no longer save the building and instead focused on preventing the fire from spreading to neighboring homes.

The students likely lost anything they could not take with them, officials said.

Koch said he hopes fire crews find a bracelet made of aircraft aluminum that belonged to his grandfather, a Marine who fought in World War II.

“I've had it forever,” he said. “Maybe they'll find it in the debris.”

Arson is not suspected, Detective Michael Burns said. An electrical problem in a basement apartment likely caused the fire, Burns said.

Several tenants said they heard an explosion after they fled the building and saw smoke billow through broken windows. Jones said investigators are looking into that.

It was the third major apartment fire that city crews have faced in just more than a week.

On March 21, a Shadyside man hours from eviction set off an explosion in the nine-story Amberson Towers Condominiums. The blast and fire killed the man, Mark A. Williams, 60, and damaged 126 of the complex's 191 units.

On Monday, firefighters used ladders to rescue 24 people when flames from a chemical fire filled the stairwell of a three-story apartment building in Garfield. Paramedics hospitalized four people with smoke inhalation and treated 10 others at the scene. One cat died.

Jones said there is nothing to suggest any connections.

“Right now, it's an unfortunate coincidence,” he said.

Kathy Humphrey, Pitt's Dean of Students, met with at least 16 displaced students and started the task of finding them apartments, officials said. As the building burned, the students sat in a Port Authority bus, many of them crying.

Pitt police Chief Tim Delaney said counselors were talking with students.

“It was very scary for me,” said Blair Koch, 21. “That actually was one of my biggest fears as a kid. I used to keep a backpack ready in case I needed it.”

Chris Togneri is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5632 or

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