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Firefighters escape powerful fireball

Chuck Biedka
| Tuesday, March 18, 2003

FREEPORT: The smoke was very thick in the hallway. Then the evacuation call was heard on fire radios.

Fire Capt. Dominic Ravotti started to carefully back down the steps at Sunday's fire at 219 Fifth St.

Ravotti was leading five firefighters who had eased through the black roiling smoke searching for a 14-year-old boy thought still to be inside the burning century-old brick building.

Firefighters learned the youth was elsewhere and immediately Fire Chief Rick Swartz radioed his men to get out of harm's way.

Moments later, Ravotti separately decided to go back, too, because the smoke was too thick to see much anyway.

"I felt a slight change in pressure, and it happened," he recalled Monday

Flashover and backdraft. Firefighters prepare for it. They know that few survive the savage fireball.

"It happened quick. I saw the fireball. It knocked me down four or five steps and I went down," said Ravotti, 20, of High Street.

Just then a fire crew played the high-pressure hose on the stairwell ceiling.

"That probably saved our lives," said Ravotti, standing in the municipal parking lot within sight of the blackened brick hulk.

Ravotti was one of two men treated for superficial burns to the face. Three firefighters were behind them on the steps. They were treated for heat exposure.

Ravotti, Zack Ayers, Scott Jones and Mike Naperkowski, all in their 20s, and Elias Heilman, 18, were cleared by emergency crews and then driven to Allegheny Valley Hospital, Harrison, for another check.

"The crazy ones returned to the blaze to pick up where they'd left off," said First Assistant Chief Mike Greiser.

By Monday the fire's cause remained undetermined and a portion of Fifth Street will remain closed until further notice.

Firefighters believe the blaze started on the third floor and said they saw flames shooting out two third-floor windows. But they haven't been able to reach the floor, so they don't yet know the cause although they have termed it accidental, Greiser said.

He said a state police fire marshal, from the Butler station, and an insurance investigator today will likely visit the building that once housed four families above a tanning shop and karate academy. Eventually the building will be razed.

Four families had lived in the building. One family was taken to a hotel for two nights and the others are staying with friends or relatives, said Karen Fair, American Red Cross chapter manager for Armstrong County.

Each family was given clothing vouchers, personal items and referred to other agencies for long-term assistance, Fair said.

About 150 firefighters and rescue crews from four counties fought the fire, Swartz said.

"They did such an excellent job," said Second Assistant Chief Gary Risch.

Two hoses were stretched from pumper trucks to the Allegheny River. One hose was played on the front of the building and the second hose pumped water on the rear of the structure, Greiser said.

Freeport Council President Jim Seagriff thanked the neighboring firefighters, the police chief and mayor for their help. "This had to be the biggest fire in Freeport in 40 to 50 years," he said. Greiser and Risch also thanked area businesses that donated food and other items to firefighters.

The 70-degree spring-like weather was welcomed by most, but it made it tough on firefighters in their protective gear, Swartz said.

He looked directly at a reporter asking about the firefighters who escaped serious injury, then answered:

"We were lucky. Very lucky." Additional Information:

To help

To donate to the four families left homeless by Sunday's fire in Freeport, contact the American Red Cross at 724-543-1392.

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