Three firefighters were sent to hospitals with minor injuries suffered battling a seven-alarm blaze at a large commercial building in Etna.
The first call came in at 2:18 p.m. Wednesday to the building in the 400 block of Butler Street, near Route 28.
An Etna firefighter said the building houses STORExpress, a self-storage facility.
Late Wednesday, company officials thanked emergency responders for their service via Facebook, and pledged to reach out to customers once they have more information.
Etna Fire Chief Greg Porter said businesses and homes within a block in each direction were evacuated as multiple fire departments responded to the scene. He said that decision was made out of caution due to the size of the fire and combustible products in the buildings, and the narrow neighborhood streets.
“It was better to be safe than sorry and make sure those folks were healthy,” Porter said.
Resident Zach Kytka was one of the folks evacuated. He lives a few houses down along Butler Street.
“I was sleeping and ended up hearing a couple bangs,” Kytka said. “I thought it was a hoodlum or someone in the back of the alley smacking on something. Then I started smelling burnt plastic, so I went outside to see what’s going on.
“That’s when it started to get really bad and the smoke started getting thick. I saw the building — and flames coming out of the center there. It was wild because I saw so many fire trucks.”
Residents were allowed back in their homes around 7 p.m.
An Allegheny County Fire Marshal is investigating the fire’s cause.
Porter said preliminary reports indicate someone was working on a motorcycle on the first floor near the center of the warehouse and it caught fire. The owner attempted to put it out with a fire extinguisher, but to no avail.
“The damage in that area is significant,” Porter said. “There’s an area that collapsed on the second floor down into the first floor that’s, maybe, 60 feet by 20 or 30 feet.”
Numerous high-end, classic, antique cars destroyed
”Everything above on the second-floor concrete, including antique cars, very nice cars stored upstairs has all fallen down into the first floor,” Porter said.
The facility housed between 150 to 200 high-end vehicles including classic and antique cars and motorcycles.
The first floor also stored a variety of household items and other materials.
Porter said there were “several difficulties” fighting the fire.
Fire chief: Fuel, building, water issues hampered battle
“We know in the area where the fire started there was a significant amount of fuel, which early on in the fire exploded and pushed the front wall of the building out,” Porter said. “One of our biggest challenges is not knowing exactly what those contents are.
“I would say it took us three hours to be comfortable that it wasn’t going to go to additional buildings. It was a significant fire that we chased throughout this city block.”
Another difficulty was the facility, itself. It’s a former Tippins Inc. facility, a rolling mill manufacturer and repair company.
“The building itself is large,” he said. “Getting hoses down the corridors was extremely challenging. There was a variety of water issues. We consumed essentially all the water in the town because of the amount of ladder pipes and hose lines we were flowing. Fortunately, we’re very close to Pittsburgh so we were able to steal quite a bit of water from the city hydrants.”
Porter said with many of the responding fire departments being all volunteer, getting enough manpower on a Wednesday afternoon was also challenging.
He said investigators are also looking into the possibility of a sprinkler system malfunctioning and no working fire alarms.
A cooling station was set up in a nearby parking lot. Salvation Army Natural Disaster Services brought water for the first responders.
Allegheny County dispatchers said emergency responders were slowly starting to reopen the area to traffic around 8:15 p.m.
Judy Earl, 45, who lives in a nearby apartment, said she saw smoke pouring out of the building when she heard a few fire trucks and stepped outside.
“It’s been pretty crazy,” she said. “It just got worse and worse.”
She and her son were waiting out the fire near the Route 28 overpass.
The ramp from Route 28 to Bridge Street was closed for several hours and there were considerable traffic backups in the surrounding area. County dispatchers said it was reopened around 9:32 p.m.
Sofia Varvaro of Shaler and Mason Sayre of Sharpsburg watch firefighters battle a large blaze in Etna. pic.twitter.com/kZQxh6Boyj
— Tom Davidson (@TribDavidson) May 8, 2019