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4 Injured When Fire Sweeps Home; Lack of Water Hampered Efforts

By Jason Togyer
The Tube City Almanac
June 18, 2018
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

A sign urges passersby to help two families burned out of the home that once stood at 2615 Cleveland St. (Photo special to Tube City Almanac)

Little remains of a house in the 2600 block of Cleveland Street that burned on Saturday morning --- sending four members of the Sostaric and Murphy families to the hospital.

A lack of water from local hydrants hampered efforts by McKeesport firefighters to fight the blaze, which spread to a neighboring home a few feet away, and got hot enough to melt the siding from three houses on the opposite side of the street.

Neighbors said it isn't the first time that a lack of water has hampered firefighting efforts on the street. One neighbor, who asked that his name not be printed, pointed to a vacant lot directly across from the home that burned to the ground Saturday.

"That house over there burned a few years ago," the neighbor said. "That vacant lot a few doors up? That was two houses that burned. Every time, same problem --- no water."

The heat from Saturday morning's fire was so intense that it melted the siding from homes on the opposite side of the street, and the trim on this car parked nearby. (Photo special to Tube City Almanac)

The fire was reported just after 5 a.m. Saturday. McKeesport fire Chief Jeff Tomovcsik said when the first engine arrived on the scene, the house was fully engulfed in flame.

County emergency dispatchers reported that the occupants of the home were trapped inside, the chief said.

A second alarm was sounded, Tomovcsik said, as firefighters went to the back of the house to rescue the occupants, who neighbors said had crawled out onto a porch roof.

The neighbor who asked not to be identified said the nearest fire hydrant wasn't working and another one, at the top of the hill, had low water pressure. He watched as fire crews snaked a hose to Grandview Avenue, two blocks away, before water tankers arrived.

"It seemed like they waited 20 minutes for the tankers to get here," the man said. "The whole time, it was just burning."

Tomovcsik said low water volume has historically been a problem in the Grandview section of the city.

It has become standard procedure for firefighters responding to house fires in the neighborhood to request tanker trucks from other departments, he said.

Residents are "frustrated" and "scared," said McKeesport Mayor Mike Cherepko, who is demanding that the city's water provider, the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County, make servicing the hydrants in that neighborhood a priority.

The city pays the authority $30,000 per year for access to the hydrants, the mayor said, and residents "deserve sufficient resources, including larger diameter lines to feed accessible hydrants."

“Our number one priority has always been to ensure the safety of our residents," Cherepko said. "Right now, we are working with Westmoreland water to make sure the authority’s infrastructure is compatible with our priorities.

"This administration is not going to settle for anything less than Westmoreland water running a new line that will be a permanent fix to this problem," he said.

The water authority, Cherepko said, recently replaced water storage tanks that feed the neighborhood as part of "Phase I" of an upgrade program. In Phase II, the authority is scheduled to replace existing water mains with larger diameter mains, he said.

"Based on our conversations this morning, it appears much of the infrastructure is in place to allow for line replacement in the near future,” Cherepko said. "I am asking Westmoreland water to make this project a priority."

A spokesman for the water authority did not immediately return a message from Tube City Almanac seeking comment.

Tomovscik said the houses in the Grandview neighborhood are close together --- some are as little as 10 or 15 feet apart --- and that the age and size of the water mains is not sufficient.

“With modern, synthetic materials in today’s homes, fires burn hotter and faster than ever before," he said.

When fire crews arrived on Saturday morning, Tomovscik said, their first priority was making sure no one was trapped in the house.

The cause of the fire is under investigation by the Allegheny County fire marshal's office, he said. The Sostaric house was leveled, and the house next door, owned by Maria Billingsley, was heavily damaged.

Because of the extensive damage, Tomovcsik said, it may be some time before the fire marshal determines where the blaze broke out. A neighbor whose home was damaged said his insurance company has told him that payment on the claim may be delayed while the investigation continues.

In addition to McKeesport police and McKeesport Ambulance Rescue Service, McKeesport firefighters were assisted by volunteer firefighters from Glassport, Duquesne Annex, White Oak No. 1, Rainbow and Liberty Borough.

Tanker trucks from Lincoln Borough, Monroeville No. 5 and Collinsburg, Rostraver Twp., responded to the scene.

No serious injuries were reported by any members of the fire service, Tomovcsik said.

Originally published June 18, 2018.

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