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Inferno levels factory; 27 left homeless

North Side fire called biggest in recent history

Tuesday, April 29, 2003

By Marylynne Pitz, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A wall of flame fueled by lumber caused more than $2 million in damage, left at least 27 people homeless and destroyed a wood column manufacturing business that had operated in the North Side neighborhood of Woods Run for 135 years.

Bobby Matuszewski made this picture of the blaze at A.F. Schwerd Manufacturing Company early yesterday morning. He discovered the fire at about 2:30 a.m. Although the nearest fire station is just three blocks away, firefighters found the plant and lumber yard engulfed when they arrived. More photos. (Bobby Matuszewski, Post-Gazette)

Online map: North side fire

A.F. Schwerd Manufacturing Co., 3215 McClure Ave., was known among architects for its custom-made decorative wood columns, which adorn buildings in Allegheny County's North Park and at Harvard University, as well as scores of libraries, hospitals, schools and private homes.

Pittsburgh Fire Chief Peter Micheli ranked the fire among the city's largest ever. A national response team from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was called in to assist the investigation.

Deputy Fire Chief David Manfredo called the block-long, three-story building "a total loss."

Company owner Elmer McKenry of Ross said he did not know if he would rebuild.

Flames were seen shooting through the roof shortly after 2 a.m. and the spreading inferno quickly menaced nearby homes on McClure, Richardson, Woods Run avenues and Langfitt Street. At least four homes were destroyed and two others were damaged.

Bobby Matuszewski, 24, of McClure Avenue, who was returning home from visiting a friend, spotted the fire at about 2:30 a.m.

"I could see the orange in the sky. It was unbelievable how big the flames were."

"It looked like a volcano," said Christian Woods, 21, of Bellevue, who was visiting friends on Richardson Avenue. "I couldn't even see the horizon."

Bobby Matuszewski is credited with alerting a dozen of his neighbors along McClure Avenue to the lumberyard inferno. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

Matuszewski awakened his mother, Chris, called 911 and rousted about a dozen other McClure Avenue residents. "He's our savior, super Bobby," said neighbor Bridget Donnelly.

The Fire Bureau sounded the first alarm at 2:42 a.m. Although the nearest fire station is just three blocks away, firefighters found the plant and lumber yard engulfed when they arrived, said Battalion Chief Mark Trocchio.

For much of yesterday, more than 110 firefighters with 20 pumpers and three aerial trucks battled the fire. Throughout the morning, firefighters aimed arcs of water onto a block-long expanse of charred timber, old red bricks and twisted metal that sent off giant clouds of white smoke.

By mid-morning, Bill Grom, a certified fire investigator with the local office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms had arrived at the scene. Additional investigators from ATF will arrive this afternoon.

Robert L. Miller, acting resident in charge of the Pittsburgh ATF office, said the national response team was not coming in to take over the investigation but to help local officals.

The fire caused more than $2 million worth of damage to the wood column manufacturing company, surrounding houses and cars. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

Micheli said investigators confront a monumental task "because of the damage and all the debris that's there and having to move the debris to put out what's underneath."

All of that work, Micheli said, makes it more difficult to find burn patterns, and "with the amount of water thrown, that will make it more difficult to find accelerants."

Micheli said the city initially asked ATF for assistance because the fire was so large.

Flames shot hundreds of feet high, melting aluminum siding on hillside homes on Richardson Avenue overlooking the lumber yard and threatening row houses across the street on McClure Avenue.

Matuszewski told fire investigators and reporters that he initially saw flames shooting from the roof of a small building that looks like a garage that jutted out from the company's angled roof.

The fire "made a loud roaring noise," said Jeffrey Houghton, a 25-year resident whose duplex on Richardson Avenue was destroyed. He said he would buy another home in the neighborhood.

Michael Matic of Langfitt Street spent three hours on the roof of his red brick home, aiming a hose at flying embers that landed on it.

His wife, Michelle Matic, surveyed damage to rare Japanese maples, hemlocks and hundreds of bonsai plants in the couple's large yard. Matic is vice president of the Pittsburgh Bonsai Society.

"We had spent the past two years replanting," Matic said, gesturing toward the charred hillside below her home.

McClure Avenue residents said the fire's heat was intense.

Firefighters used thermal imaging equipment and large amounts of water to extinguish hotspots. More photos. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

"My living room was orange," said Donnelly, describing the flames that cracked the glass of her windows.

In March 2002, Donnelly and her fiancee, Michael Greiner, began remodeling the home at 3232 McClure Ave. by plastering walls, installing $3,000 worth of hardwood floors, remodeling steps and installing new rugs.

"The whole front bedroom is my closet and it's all water damaged," said Donnelly, who moved in last January. "At least we got out. It's going to be a job," she said, surveying the damage.

Kim Salamacha of Brighton Heights said city building inspectors condemned her mother's home at 3230 McClure Ave.

The blaze was so intense that a fireball shot down Woods Run Avenue, creating a ring of fire on a hillside near the Shadeland Avenue Bridge. The fireball narrowly missed homes on Woods Run Avenue.

"It's amazing that it went that way and not past our houses," said Connie Coleman, a Woods Run Avenue resident.

Bob Myers, director of disaster services for the Salvation Army, which set up comfort stations with coffee and food, said the fire was one of the worst he has seen in his 25 years with the charity.

Jill Berardi, spokeswoman for the Southwestern Pennsylvania chapter of the American Red Cross, said 27 people were displaced. The agency provided food, clothing and shelter to 23 of them.

After the fire was out, city public works employees used heavy equipment to knock down brick walls that were in danger of collapse.

That work stopped around 11 a.m. because "they wanted us not to touch any more of the building until ATF arrives," said Guy Costa, director of the city's public works department.

Matuszewski's mother said McKenry told her he awakened around 4 a.m., learned of the fire on television and raced to the neighborhood.

The business also employed McKenry's son, Patrick, a daughter, Sharon, and a regular crew of 10 employees.

During a brief telephone interview yesterday, McKenry said he had worked at the lumber yard for 52 years and started out by sweeping floors. The business was owned by his father and grandfather, McKenry said.

Asked if he would rebuild, McKenry said, "I really don't know until this gets settled. Something like that, you really gotta think. The business has been there 135 years."


Marylynne Pitz can be reached at mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.

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