Fire Officials Say Had The Gas Line Been Shut Off Sooner, Blaze May Not Have Been As BadBy Amy Wadas

PENN HILLS (KDKA) — Seven firefighters were injured and fire crews spent more than 12 hours on the scene of a gas line-fueled fire at a shopping plaza in Penn Hills.

The massive blaze first broke out around 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the Churchill Center Plaza. The plaza houses four businesses, including Eagle Renter, Cefolo’s Cleaners, Don’s Services and Big Shot Bob’s House of Wings.

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All that’s left now is rubble and a burned out shell, so crews plan on tearing the rest down.

Firefighters initially spotted smoke and flames coming from the dry cleaner.

“Further investigation they found a fire fed by one of the gas meters that were there. We made notification to the company that they needed to be here to shut gas off to building,” said Fire Chief Bill Jeffcoat, with Penn Hills 7.

Witnesses reported hearing at least two explosions.

“At first there was just like a hole in the outside and it just had smoke coming out of it, and all of the sudden, the fire just started and it started spreading,” witness Cerene Johnston said.

The fire caused the back of the building to collapse, and a backhoe was brought in to tear down the first of the structure.

Photo Credit: KDKA Photographer Ian Smith

Witnesses like Jay Kearney watched a piece of history disintegrate.

“It’s something that’s been there for years, up in smoke, and it goes away. One day it’s there, one day it’s not,” said Kearney.

(Photo Credit: Amy Wadas/KDKA)

Firefighters eventually had to go into a “surround and drown” mode because of the collapse.

Seven firefighters were injured in the process. Four of them were injured in the explosion at the back of the plaza. They were hospitalized, but have since been released.

Three other firefighters were treated on scene for minor injuries.

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According to the fire marshal, the gas line that sparked the whole thing was finally shut off around midnight by crews from Peoples Gas. The fire chief said it took Peoples Gas between four to five hours to shut off the gas line.

“They initially couldn’t find the gas shutoff. They told us they thought it was paved over at one point; that wasn’t the case,” said Chief Jeffcoat.

An excavator was brought in for crews to reach the line and shut off the valves.

“The gas company’s position, they would have had to go around and re-light all the pilot lights for hot water tanks and stoves, but that’s a minor inconvenience to four individuals who had to spend time at hospital,” said Chief Jeffcoat.

“If we were able to get the gas secured in the very beginning of the fire, the damage would have been very minimal,” said Penn Hills Fire Marshal Chuck Miller.

Peoples Gas released this statement Monday morning through Community Affairs Director Barry Kukovich:

“On Sunday, July 28, we were called to the scene of a shopping center fire in Penn Hills. Investigation into if and how natural gas was related is ongoing. There were three lines going into the building. Two of them were shut down soon after we arrived on site. The third shut-off was more difficult to locate and once located, the work to eventually shut off the line was complicated and delayed as a result of the extensive amount of emergency equipment and the significant amount of water used to fight the fire that was streaming over the area.”

Frankstown Road between Laketon and Ritzland Roads and between Coal Hollow Road at Cliff Drive and Nelbon Avenue were shut down due as crews battled the fire.

The fire marshal said the municipal manager, members of council and mayor will be addressing what happened with the utility commission.

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The fire chief estimates damage to Churchill Center Plaza costing around $1.5 million.