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Rowhouse in Rankin burns; 11 homeless

| Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2010, 12:00 p.m.

Lonell Horton, Anthony Carter and several of their neighbors lost everything they own Wednesday when a quick-moving fire swept through a rowhouse in Rankin, sending billowing smoke so high into the air that it could be seen in several Mon Valley communities.

Two firefighters were taken to UPMC Mercy Hospital, Uptown, for treatment of cuts and burns suffered while trying to douse the flames, which heavily damaged the rowhouse at the corner of Mound Street and Fourth Avenue, a block from the fire station.

"Nobody was hurt, that's the good thing about it," said Horton, 44, an Army war veteran who is a minister at the nearby Emanuel Baptist Church. "The inferno was so intense. I haven't seen fire like that since I was in Iraq."

The fire spread so quickly that Carter, 42 -- who has a neuromuscular disease that falls under the general umbrella term muscular dystrophy -- had to flee without his wheelchair.

"I could walk enough to get out of the house," said Carter as he waited with other residents outside the fire hall to meet with Red Cross workers. "I lost my wheelchair. Everything I own is gone."

The Red Cross is providing food, clothing and shelter for 11 people, spokeswoman Julie Voigt said.

Allegheny County Emergency Services Chief Robert Full said investigators believe the fire was accidental but that its cause remains under investigation. He said they are trying to determine whether it started when someone fell asleep smoking in bed.

"The occupant doesn't have a phone, so he drove to the fire and police station, and someone there called 911," Full said.

Horton was inside his apartment when he heard the commotion a few moments before a neighbor knocked on his door, yelling the building was on fire.

"I ran outside with no shoes, no coat," Horton said.

"It scared me pretty good because a couple of elderly people live there, and there are always children playing there. By the time I got across the street, flames had engulfed the whole unit. I heard two loud explosions that blew the windows out. That's when I knew everything was gone. All I got left is what I'm wearing."

An electrical line that was damaged during the fire left a few hundred customers, including an after-school program at the Rankin Christian Center, without power, Duquesne Light spokesman Joseph H. Vallarian said. Service was restored last night.

Rankin Council president William H. Price III, 61, said there were nine units -- each with a separate front door and a first and second floor -- in the building that he said is older than he is.

The building had a common roof and common porches that allowed the flames to move swiftly from one unit to another, Full said, explaining: "It was built to burn."

At least one unit was destroyed and three others heavily damaged by the fire that destroyed part of the roof and buckled at least one of the walls, Full said. The other units sustained heavy smoke and water damage.

Price said the borough building inspector will try to determine today whether any part of the building can be saved.

The Rev. Wanda Sawyer-Flipping, pastor of Emanuel Baptist Church, said anyone interested in helping the victims should call the church at 412-271-2428.

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