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Multiple houses burn in Mt. Oliver fire, displacing dozens of residents

| Sunday, June 8, 2014, 11:10 a.m.
Residents are brought to tears by the sight of burning houses on Sunday, June 8, 2014, in Mt. Oliver.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Residents are brought to tears by the sight of burning houses on Sunday, June 8, 2014, in Mt. Oliver.

Balls of fire from a four-alarm blaze leaped across two Mt. Oliver streets on Sunday, burning 11 homes, damaging two others and displacing at least 48 people.

Neighbors said the blaze began in the basement of a home at 193 Ormsby Ave. after 10 a.m. Sunday and quickly spread to four adjoining houses.

The Allegheny County fire marshal was investigating the cause.

Matthew Scholl, 27, who lives a block from where the blaze broke out, said he saw bolts of fire coiled in black smoke jump across the street, igniting three more houses.

The flames sawed through power lines.

A column of smoke and roiling cinders that reached eight stories high drifted north toward St. Joseph Street, setting a building on fire there.

By the end of the afternoon, the Southwestern Pennsylvania Red Cross and the Allegheny County Department of Emergency Services had established an overnight shelter for 39 adults and nine children in the Mt. Oliver Volunteer Fire Department on Brownsville Road. The Salvation Army is assisting them.

“I heard this popping. I looked up, and it was the breaker boxes exploding up and down the street,” Scholl said, pointing at poles that still shot sparks onto the pavement.

Tim Melzer, 46, was in a deep sleep on an upper floor of 193 Ormsby, having stayed up late watching television. He said he heard banging on his door and his son, Jeffrey, 24, screaming for him to get out.

“Flames were coming through the walls,” Tim Melzer said. “If it was not for my son ... I wouldn't be here now.”

Dave Smith, 38, a former volunteer firefighter and soldier who served in Iraq, tried to dash into the smoke to save Melzer's dogs — Duchess, a Dutch hound, and Odie, a beagle — but was stopped by the intense heat. The animals were believed to have died.

Across the street, however, he was able to rescue Cheryl Engel, 47, and her golden retriever, Trevor.

“My previous training in the fire department and the Army just kicked in,” said Smith, who lives a half-block from the fire. “We helped an old guy who was having trouble breathing.”

Engel was able to escape with her Bible but could not find her cat, Simon, and worried that he was lost.

“He's an old cat,” she said. “I hope that he made it, but no one knows.”

Cornell Grace, 59, an employee of the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Oakland, recalled smoke flowing through his Ormsby Avenue apartment. He grabbed a purple surgical mask and ran outside.

“It was black, all black, because of the smoke. It was like hell,” he said, pointing at two structures that were little more than rubble.

Watching from her apartment above the fire station — about three blocks from the blaze — Alexis Little, 36, said firefighters got stuck in traffic because a memorial service in a nearby funeral home finished shortly before the fire began.

“They were yelling, ‘We're stuck! We're stuck!' ” Little said. “They were trying to move the cars out of the way to get the truck on the way.”

By noon, Pittsburgh Public Safety director Michael Huss said firefighters had most of the blaze contained and that crews were roaming through a four-block radius to find spots where cinders might have ignited other fires. Huss said at least 100 firefighters were on the scene, including trucks from the city, Castle Shannon and Baldwin Borough.

One Pittsburgh firefighter was treated for heat exhaustion, but there were “no serious” injuries involving residents, Huss said.

Throughout the afternoon, residents' friends and relatives arrived at the scene, stretching across the yellow police tape to beg officers for information about elderly relatives they had not found. Residents took boxes of bottled water and potato chips to firefighters; others rummaged through their closets to give clothes to fire victims.

Scholl gave Tim Melzer a shirt and shoes. A woman who ran from the billowing smoke carrying a shoebox received a spare cage from Scholl and food for her hamster.

“There obviously has been a great deal of damage,” said Red Cross spokesman Kevin Brown at the emergency shelter. “We're going to deal with it.”

Carl Prine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7826 or

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