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McKeesport Towers awaiting all-clear from utility companies
Damage to the east wing of McKeesport Towers may affect 26 to 30 units, MHA says. (Tube City Almanac photo)
• Related story: Officials praise response, evacuation efforts at high-rise
Residents of McKeesport Towers should begin to know by Sunday afternoon when they can return to their apartments.
On Friday, 180 people were forced to evacuate after fire broke out in a seventh-floor apartment on the Coursin Street side of the 12-story high-rise complex. Although the fire was extinguished in less than 30 minutes, damage to that portion of the building was extensive, said Diane Raible, deputy director of the McKeesport Housing Authority.
“I’ve seen a lot of fires and I’ve never seen anything of this magnitude,” she said.
Raible spent all night at the scene along with other MHA employees. She said her thoughts — and theirs — were with two residents who remained hospitalized in critical condition on Saturday. “Property is nothing compared to life,” Raible said.
MHA staff — including Raible — were on the scene throughout the incident Friday afternoon and throughout the night. Some remained at the scene, without sleep, on Saturday.
“This is where the work of the staff comes in — they know the tenants,” said State Sen. Jim Brewster, who chairs the housing authority board. “They know these individuals. It’s not like they’re talking to strangers, and when something like this happens, that’s important. I couldn’t be more happy about how it was handled, but we have a lot of work to do.”
Initally, on Friday night, 72 residents were staying in an emergency shelter at the housing authority’s community center, with cots, food and clothing supplied by the American Red Cross.
As of Saturday night, 37 residents remained there, according to Raible. About 20 residents were sent to personal care homes and some are staying at the Kane Regional Center in McKeesport, while approximately 10 others are living temporarily with family and friends.
Beyond the monetary loss, the fire was emotionally devastating to the building’s mostly elderly residents, Brewster said.
“A lot of these folks don’t drive,” he said. “This is their home. This is where all of their stuff is. If we have to go off-site to relocate people, we want to keep them as close as we can.”
Raible said authority personnel were cleared by the fire marshal’s office on Saturday to begin the task of cleaning up the smoke, water and fire damage, and that insurance appraisers and disaster restoration specialists had begun estimating the monetary costs.
She said she did not want to speculate on the cost, but that repairs would be expensive. The building has 192 units. At least 26 to 30 units in the east tower of the building are likely to need extensive work, Raible said.
Smoke impacted the units on the upper floors, and their contents, she said, while water caused ceilings to collapse on the lower floors.
“It’s pretty bad,” Raible said. “We know that several people are likely to have their apartments declared complete losses.”
The building is reserved for senior citizens on low- or fixed-incomes. McKeesport residents have already reached out to MHA to ask how they can help, Raible said.
Both Raible and Brewster asked the community to hold off on making donations until the housing authority can determine what residents’ personal items need to be replaced.
“I am completely overwhelmed and astounded by the community and the response,” Raible said. “The first responders in this area are second to none. The MHA staff have risen way above any expectations anyone could have ever had. I’m one of the longer-term employees here. For some of the younger employees, this is their first experience responding to a fire, and their work is simply amazing.”
Brewster said he’s hopeful that at least some residents will be cleared to return to their apartments by Monday.
“Obviously, (the housing authority) doesn’t have enough vacancies elsewhere to make up for the ones who had their units water-damaged on that side, so a few people will have to stay off-site,” he said.
In the meantime, Brewster urged the community to pray for everyone involved.
“Right now, the Red Cross and Allegheny County Human Services are helping,” he said. “Everyone is doing what they’re supposed to do. Prayer is something that the public can do — and we can do that from a distance.”
Originally published September 09, 2023.