Pa. fire chief calls mayday after becoming separated from crew

Assistant Fire Chief Kevin Smith, was dangling out of a front window after he was unable to see while inside the building

By Karen Kane
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

BUTLER COUNTY, Pa. — For seven Butler County families, the blaze that destroyed a three-story building Sunday in Butler City meant the loss of their homes.

For a local entrepreneur just weeks away from celebrating his diner’s two-year anniversary, watching his building’s roof crumble was like watching his dreams collapse.

For a veteran firefighter who became separated from his crew while moving through smoke so dense he couldn’t see his own hands, Sunday’s battle was a confrontation with his own mortality, a potential brush with death.

“It was an anxious situation,” said Capt. Kevin McAfee of the Butler Fire Department. He led the team of more than 50 firefighters in an effort to combat the blaze at the building on Center Avenue, a mile from downtown Butler. The brick building housed eight apartments, seven of which were occupied, as well as a first-floor diner called Hutch’s.

The fire was reported shortly after 9 a.m.

Bryan Hutchens, owner of the diner at 339 Center Avenue, said he had stepped outside to toss some garbage when he saw smoke coming from an upstairs window. There were about two dozen patrons having breakfast. “It smelled electrical. I went back in and checked out my kitchen. There was no fire. But, the smell of smoke was getting stronger,” he recounted.

A resident of Butler Township, Mr. Hutchens opened the diner two years ago on April 7. “I don’t know what we’ll do. I have insurance,” he said at about noon Sunday as he watched firefighters continue to soak the exterior of the building to prevent a flare-up.

Capt. McAfee said he could see smoke billowing from the upper windows at the back of the building when he arrived. Just feet away from another house and a business, he immediately called for assistance. Though Butler City has a paid firefighting force, the department was going to need help to prevent this one from spreading.

Out came crews from Butler Township, South Butler, Saxonburg and the VA Butler healthcare complex. In all, there were some 50 to 60 firefighters on scene.

The captain said the fire was a difficult one: The building was old, the exterior done and redone with multiple dropped ceilings. “You could see the fire went straight up the walls,” he said. “There was no way to stop it.”

He was worried about the flames jumping to a neighboring building.

The worst happened when one of the team, South Butler Township Assistant Fire Chief Kevin Smith, was dangling out of a front window. It took about five to 10 minutes to get him out of the building and it seemed like forever, Capt. McAfee said. They used a ladder truck to position another ladder that spanned the burning building and the roof of the neighboring building. “He called ‘May Day’ and headed the light (of the window) and was hanging over the edge, bent at the waist with his legs inside and his head outside,” the captain said. Meanwhile, another firefighter wrenched his knee.

Mr. Smith, 46, and a volunteer firefighter for 27 years, said he doesn’t know how it happened but he became separated from his crew while inside the building. “You couldn’t see anything inside. I didn’t know where I was. That’s the worst I’ve ever had it,” he said as the crews were cleaning up Sunday.

Once he reached the window and could see the firefighters below, he said he knew “they would get me out.”

The American Red Cross is assisting the displaced residents. Though both Mr. Smith and the firefighter with the injured knee were checked by paramedics, no one required medical treatment.

A state police fire marshal will investigate the cause of the blaze. The captain estimated the building to be a “total loss.” There is no value on the building and contents.

Copyright 2017 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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