Penn Hills manager slams Peoples Gas for response to plaza fire
Penn Hills officials are looking for answers from Peoples Gas about why it took the company so long to shut down a ruptured gas line that fed a fire that destroyed a shopping center along Frankstown Road.
The gas company said it was hampered at the Churchill Center Plaza fire scene along Frankstown Road by a mislabeled shutoff valve and fire equipment that obstructed where it needed to be to shut off the gas.
The blaze injured several firefighters and caused up to $1.5 million in damage as it burned for more than 12 hours, the township’s manager and fire chief said Monday.
Penn Hills Manager Scott Andrejchak said more firefighters could have been injured and blamed the destruction of the building on what he said was a slow response by Peoples.
“I think it’s a complete insult to everyone involved with the situation,” he said. “We’re lucky we didn’t have the loss of life. I think they owe a big explanation.”
Peoples spokesman Barry Kukovich said the company’s response to the fire was complicated by a mislabeled valve box cover that was blocked by fire equipment.
Three service lines were feeding gas to the fire, Kukovich wrote in a statement. A third line went to an adjacent building, he said.
Peoples crews were able to shut off gas service to the adjacent building and to the meters located in the rear of the plaza, but meters at the front of the building were fed by another line and its shutoff valve couldn’t immediately be located, Kukovich said.
“These meters were located inside the burning building. The shut off valve to the service line which led to the front meters could not be located immediately because instead of the originally placed Peoples Gas cover, the valve box lid had a water cover placed over it,” Kukovich said.
Peoples needed to verify the valve was for a gas line and after doing so they were not able immediately to shut off the valve because fire equipment obstructed access to the valve, Kukovich said.
“We dug a hole in the parking lot adjacent to the truck to verify that the shut off valve was, in fact, a gas shut off valve and not a water valve,” he said. “To operate the valve, we had to cut our standard steel valve key in half and angle it under the bumper of the fire vehicle. This was accomplished while working in running water four to five inches deep.”
The company decided against shutting down the gas main beneath Frankstown Road because it would have involved digging two 5 feet-by-6 feet holes in the road through the concrete to cut off the gas flow, Kukovich said.
“We ruled out this option because it would have been more time consuming than the action we pursued,” he said. “We want to thank all the emergency responders and our employees who responded to this incident under difficult conditions.”
The investigation as to how the gas lines became involved in the fire continues, Kukovich said.
The fire was initially reported at 7:27 p.m. The gas company arrived on the scene at 8:13 p.m., said Penn Hills No. 7 Fire Chief Bill Jeffcoat, referring to his log of the response to the fire. The gas supply wasn’t shut off until 12:20 a.m. and the fire burned until 8:07 a.m. Monday, Jeffcoat said.
Because it was fed by gas, response to the fire was futile for several hours, Jeffcoat said.
Four firefighters were hurt in a gas explosion shortly before 10 p.m. Two were trapped under debris and rescued. All were taken to a hospital, treated and released by Monday morning. Three other firefighters were taken to the hospital, treated for their injuries and released by Monday. About a dozen other firefighters were treated at the scene for heat exhaustion and other injuries, Jeffcoat and Penn Hills Fire Marshall Chuck Miller said.
The response from Peoples is to blame for the extent of the damage and firefighters who were hurt fighting the blaze, Andrejchak said.
“They did not perform last night,” Andrejchak said of Peoples.
Firefighters from across the area did a great job working the fire, Andrejchak said.
It was difficult because the gas made putting out the fire impossible, Jeffcoat said. Although the gas supply was shut off at 12:20 a.m., by that time the fire had been “free burning” for such a long time that it took hours for firefighters to play “catch-up” Jeffcoat said. The furniture that was housed in Eagle Rental also added fuel to the fire, he added.
“It doesn’t matter how much water you put on the fire, it just keeps going and going and going,” Jeffcoat said of fighting the fire.
The plaza housed a Big Shot Bob’s House of Wings restaurant, Cefola’s dry cleaners, a Disability Options Network human services office and Eagle Rental, an electronics and furniture rental business. The owner of the building couldn’t immediately be determined, but Andrejchak said it was insured.
Jeffcoat pegged the damage at between $1.2 million and $1.5 million.
“You have four rent-paying tenants. That in itself adds value to the building,” Jeffcoat said.
It was a pile of rubble once the fire was out Monday morning and Penn Hills public works crews worked to clean up the area.
Piles of firefighting foam slowly dissolved on Frankstown Road. Some of the substance, which works better than water at fires, was on Old Frankstown Road a half-mile away.
Tom Davidson is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tom at 724-226-4715, [email protected] or via Twitter .