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Deadly fire has lessons for bureau

| Saturday, May 15, 2004, 12:00 p.m.

The Pittsburgh Fire Bureau will put a greater emphasis on firefighter safety than preservation of property in the wake of the Ebenezer Baptist Church fire, Chief Peter J. Micheli Jr. said Friday, but the philosophical shift likely would not have saved the lives of two firemen killed in the March 13 blaze.

"Even if we go into a cultural change, I don't think procedure would have been any different at this incident," he said.

Micheli discussed at a news conference the findings of a board of inquiry into the fire that killed Battalion Chief Charles Brace, 55, and firefighter Richard Stefanakis, 51. He said firefighters will be trained to douse some fires in vacant and abandoned buildings and avoid heroic actions to save them.

"If life's involved, we will take the risk," Micheli said. "If property's involved, we will take moderate risk. If there's nothing, and I want to emphasize nothing, then you take no risks."

Brace, of Brookline, and Stefanakis, of Allentown, died when they and other firefighters were sent back into the smoldering Hilll District church to put out hot spots and the 115-foot bell tower collapsed on them. Twenty-three firefighters and a mechanic were injured.

Investigators are unable to determine the cause of the fire because intense flames over three hours consumed all usable evidence, said Capt. Francis Deleonibus, who led the investigation.

Deleonibus said the fire began in a space between the ceiling of a basement computer room and the floor above it. He said electrical problems could not be ruled out as the cause, but there were no wires or other evidence left to check for damage.

Deleonibus said there was no evidence to suggest arson.

The board of inquiry stated in a report released Thursday that firefighters were sent back into the church because commanders had no idea the bell tower was unstable. The tower appeared to be built entirely of stone, but was constructed of less stable brick with a stone facade.

Deputy Chief John Gourley, chairman of the inquiry board, said yesterday that the Rev. J. Van Alfred Winsett, senior pastor of the 130-year-old landmark, knew the spire was brick, but no one asked him.

Winsett told firefighters there were no heavy bells in the tower that could fall, Gourley said.

Cautioning against "Monday-morning quarterbacking this," Gourley said firefighters responding to fires usually ask more questions about dangerous dogs or flammable materials than about construction methods.

He said that 75 percent of the church was undamaged until the tower fell, and firefighters were trying to save the building.

"If that tower had not collapsed, they were not going to be tearing this building down," Gourley said.

He also defended a decision not to break out the church's stained-glass windows, saying removing individual leaded panes and the thick plexiglass covering them was dangerous and time-consuming.

The board's report suggested that a backdraft, or explosion of pent-up gasses, that occurred almost three hours before the tower fell could have been prevented with better ventilation of the fire.

Micheli said thermal-imaging cameras would have speeded firefighters' search for the seat of the blaze. The department already put such cameras on a budget request before the fire, and two have been donated to the department since, he said.

Tamara Kilgore, spokeswoman for Mayor Tom Murphy, said she is unsure of the status of the budget request for the cameras. She said Murphy's office is confident the board of inquiry will help improve fire department police and prevent future deaths.

Ten other firefighters injured in the fire remain off work and some likely will never be able to resume their careers, Micheli said.

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