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180 People Displaced Following High-Rise Fire

Officials say blaze at McKeesport Towers could have been worse; response praised

By Jason Togyer
The Tube City Almanac
September 09, 2023
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

• Related Story: Residents should learn soon when they can return to their homes

Four people were injured during a fire at a McKeesport high-rise that involved the rescue and evacuation of nearly 200 elderly residents on Friday afternoon.

At least two people remained hospitalized, reportedly in critical condition, on Saturday.

The blaze broke out in a seventh-floor apartment on the Coursin Street side of the McKeesport Towers, a 12-story apartment building owned and operated by McKeesport Housing Authority.

McKeesport Deputy Fire Chief Gene Esken said the resident of the unit where the fire was first reported was home at the time of the fire and was in a wheelchair. The resident, whose name is not being released, was able to escape into the hallway and was evacuated by fire crews, Esken said.

All of the residents were accounted for by Friday evening, officials said. Police and security guards were stationed on the site Friday and Saturday to protect residents’ belongings.

McKeesport Towers currently has 180 tenants, said Steve Buckelew, director of McKeesport Housing Authority.

Esken said the response to the blaze, which broke out just after 2:30 p.m. Friday, involved up to 200 people from dozens of agencies and was one of the most complicated rescue operations to impact the city in recent years.

“If a bad situation can be said to have gone well, it went about as well as it could have gone,” said state Sen. Jim Brewster, who chairs the housing authority board of directors. He praised officials at the scene for the extremely coordinated effort on Friday afternoon.

“I couldn’t even say it looked ‘chaotic,’” Brewster said. “You would have thought that they did that every day. They did a terrific job getting the people out and getting the firefighters in. I can’t say enough for the police, firefighters and EMS. At the end of the day, what could have been a horrific event was held in check.”

Ten residents were taken by ambulances to area hospitals, mostly people who had inhaled smoke, or people who were managing long-term health conditions, said Bill Miller, chief of McKeesport Ambulance Rescue Service.

Upwards of 20 emergency medical services agencies — from as far away as Tarentum and Bridgeville — responded to the scene following declaration of a mass-casualty incident, he said.

Three emergency room doctors from UPMC and Allegheny Health Network also reported to the scene, Miller said.

Other residents were evacuated to the McKees Point Palisades by Pittsburgh Regional Transit buses, Brewster said, adding that Community LIFE also sent vans to aid with transport.

Although the fire was out in approximately 30 minutes, Esken said the rescue effort required police, firefighters and ambulance personnel from dozens of agencies in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties to go door-to-door to check on each of the tenants and make sure their units were unoccupied.

Crews from MHA were on the scene throughout Saturday, along with utility company representatives, assessing the damage and condition of the structure. The Allegheny County fire marshal’s office is investigating the cause of the blaze with assistance from McKeesport police.

Esken said city firefighters received their first alarm at 2:39 p.m. when an automatic fire alarm was activated in the building. The first call to Allegheny County 9-1-1 came in at roughly the same time, he said.

When the first crews arrived at 2:40, flames were already visible from the seventh-floor apartment where the fire began, Esken said, and additional alarms were struck.

According to Allegheny County 9-1-1, crews from Allegheny County Airport, Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory, Dravosburg, Duquesne Annex, Glassport, Homestead, Homeville, Liberty Borough, Munhall No. 1, Port Vue, Rainbow, Swissvale No. 1, West Mifflin No. 3 and White Oak No. 1 were on the scene.

“Between the mutual aid companies and the response of our off-duty (McKeesport) firefighters, we were able to knock the fire down pretty fast,” Esken said. “Those guys did amazing work. I cannot stress that enough. All of them, including police and EMS, put it all on the line yesterday.”

The firefighting effort had to be conducted at the same time as the evacuation, he said. Many residents — especially those on the seventh and eighth floors — had to be carried down seven flights of stairs.

“I haven’t begun to count the number of people we assisted or made physical rescues for,” Esken said.

Some residents who called 9-1-1 for assistance — those on lower floors which were unimpacted by the smoke and flame — were asked to temporarily shelter in place for their own safety, he said.

The building consists of two high-rise wings connected at the center by a lobby area. The east wing of the building suffered significant fire damage on the seventh floor, Esken said, with smoke damage throughout the upper floors, and water damage below.

The concrete construction of the building prevented the fire from spreading, he said, but the blaze inside the apartment was intense and fueled by clothing, household furnishings and other highly inflammable items.

“The unit itself was like an oven,” Esken said. “There just was no place for the fire and smoke to go.”

Although McKeesport Towers is equipped with a standpipe system to deliver water to fire hoses, he said, it does not have sprinklers, which were not required when the complex was built in the early 1970s.

One firefighter told Brewster on Friday that the smoke on the seventh floor was “so thick, you could cut it with a knife.”

TV news reports and social-media posts have speculated on the cause of the blaze, but Esken said he would wait until the cause was officially determined by investigators from the fire marshal’s office and McKeesport police.

“There’s a lot of hearsay going on right now,” he said. “I’d like to leave it up to the Allegheny County fire marshal.”

Originally published September 09, 2023.

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