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U.S. joins North Side fire probe

Some in 20-agent team worked at 9/11 crash sites

Wednesday, April 30, 2003

By Marylynne Pitz, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Twenty federal agents, some of whom examined the Pentagon after 9/11 or the crash scene of Flight 93 in Somerset County, will begin digging today through the rubble of the A.F. Schwerd Manufacturing Co.

Steve and Sandy Farrell walk through the burned-out remains of their home yesterday at 3216 Richardson Ave. in Woods Run. The Farrell home was involved in Monday's blaze that caused more than $2 million in damage and left at least 27 people homeless. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)


Local column maker
carved a national niche

A fire on Monday morning destroyed the business, which made decorative wooden columns, inflicting more than $2 million worth of property damage.

The 20-member team, which will work with investigators from the city and county, plans to start work at an exterior brick wall that survived the fire, according to Pittsburgh Fire Bureau Chief Peter Micheli.

"They're going to see if that wall is OK and if it is, they'll start digging back there," Micheli said, adding that because the building was four stories in some places, there is 15 to 20 feet of rubble.

Asked if he believes the fire was deliberately set, Micheli replied, "Right now, I have no indication it's suspicious. We just didn't go in there yet."

Micheli said he did not believe that A.F. Schwerd had installed a sprinkler system or a security system that automatically alerts the fire department if a fire breaks out.

Mark Chait, assistant special agent in charge of the Philadelphia office for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms, said the team that arrived yesterday includes certified fire investigators, two chemists, explosives experts and a fire protection engineer.

Certified fire investigators complete two years of training to become experts in fire science, said Chait, who is also the special agent in charge of the Northeast Response Team for ATF.

"Any scene is difficult when you have a total collapse. We do as much as we can in a short period of time to do a full investigation of what happened here," Chait said.

That requires sifting through the rubble.

"We need to use heavy equipment," Chait said, adding that investigators also must know what the business looked like and how it was laid out.

The agents, Chait said, will interview the owner, Elmer McKenry, and review television footage from local stations as well as video and pictures shot by witnesses.

Chemists from ATF's national lab will be able to test debris samples at the scene, Chait said.

"That doesn't say we'll have a conclusive finding because sometimes fires go undetermined," he said.

ATF's national response team investigated two fires here in 1999. On March 28, 1999, a fire destroyed Aspinwall United Presbyterian Church, causing $2 million in damage. The fire, which was ruled accidental, may have been caused by an electrical problem.

The next day, a Kmart on Route 51 in Pleasant Hills was destroyed in a fire that caused $15 million in damage. The fire, traced to an undetermined electrical malfunction, was ruled accidental.

Mark Facemire and Jim Slab, two longtime residents of Woods Run, said they like the area because people know one another and get along. But the two men also noted that there are 10 to 15 vacant lots on McClure and Lecky avenues where homes were destroyed in fires in the past decade.

Asked about these fires, Micheli responded, "I'd have to have arson check that out."

Facemire and Slab said that at least two of the homes were frequented by drug users.

Two other homes, the men said, were frequented by heroin users, until they were demolished 12 years ago.

In all, 112 firefighters from 20 engine companies and five truck companies responded to Monday's fire.

Pittsburgh Deputy Fire Chief Keith Drudy said the first alarm sounded on Monday at 2:42 a.m. and by 3:05 a.m., five alarms had sounded. A second alarm brings two additional pumpers and another truck.

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

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