Student killed, 100 evacuated in Pa. fire

By Jim McKinnon
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

BELLEVUE, Pa. — Witnesses said they saw their Bellevue neighbor screaming and flailing his hands and arms frantically from a window in his smoke-filled room, fearful of jumping 35 feet to the ground.

Instead, the 22-year-old foreign culinary student, whose name has not been released, turned back into his room and the thick, black smoke from a fire two stories below in the Bellevue Mansions apartment building on Jefferson Avenue in the borough.

Firefighters found his severely burned remains after the fire was extinguished.

The victim was the only fatality among about 100 residents who were forced to evacuate or be rescued by firefighters from the fire yesterday morning.

The 22-year-old man, who was described by his neighbors as a foreigner, was a student at the Pittsburgh Culinary Institute.

The resident population at the Bellevue Mansions is about 60 percent students who study at the culinary school and the Pittsburgh Art Institute.

The four-story building with 75 units also housed elderly tenants and others with special medical needs.

Bellevue Fire Chief Glenn Pritchard said the cause of the fire is being investigated by the Allegheny County fire marshal.

It is of suspicious origin, though the cause had not yet been determined yesterday, Chief Pritchard said.

A security guard at the scene said he noticed smoke at about 2:30 a.m. between the first floor and the basement.

The guard and at least one of the residents began banging on doors to wake residents, even as the guard dialed 911 and his supervisors.

Chief Pritchard said firefighters from 10 companies arrived to see many of the tenants screaming and waving from their windows for help as smoke wafted around them.

The dense smoke made it impossible for many of them to safely see their way to the exits. One woman said she jumped from her first-floor window because the hallways were too smoke-filled.

At least 15 residents were carried by firefighters from the building. Dozens more had to be escorted by their rescuers.

One firefighter was injured while carrying one of the residents to safety, Chief Pritchard said.

The fire moved quickly, burning its way through several units in the basement and first floor. Other apartments sustained damage from smoke and water.

Several tenants were treated for smoke inhalation, and a few were taken to hospitals for more intense treatment.

The Pittsburgh chapter of the Red Cross is assisting those who have been left homeless. Residents have been told they could return to undamaged parts of the building by next week.

However, every rental unit situated in the proximity of the fire sustained heavy smoke damage, ruining most of the belongings of the residents.

Chief Pritchard yesterday commended the work of the volunteer firefighters who responded. Some of the rescuers will be debriefed and offered counseling after the experience, he said.

"If they wouldn't have done what they did as well as they did, we probably would've had more fatalities," the fire chief said.

One tenant slept through the ordeal. Calin Foltz, a 21-year-old culinary student, said his friends rushed to his door in a lesser affected part of the building to search for him after the fire had been extinguished.

Several residents said they were awakened by a fire alarm around 2:30 a.m. But, they said, the alarm shut off after about 30 seconds.

Todd Schreckengost, 23, said he had left the building and he was about to go back inside, believing it was a false alarm, when he noticed the heavy smoke in the hallways.

One 32-year-old culinary student from Akron, Ohio, was on the cell phone, choking as he reported the scene to his mother.

The man reported that he had been asleep in a third-floor apartment just above where the fire was burning when a friend, who already had evacuated, called him on the cell phone until he answered.


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