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Pa. firefighters rescue victims from burning high-rise roof, balconies

By Brett Hambright
The Intelligencer Journal

LANCASTER, Pa. — A four-alarm blaze forced tenants of a large apartment complex near center-city Lancaster onto the streets Sunday.

City police and fire officials said they rescued between 10 and 20 tenants from Stevens House Condominiums, including a man taken from the roof and another sick occupant who was trapped in his room with his breathing machine.

City Battalion Fire Chief Jeff Oatman said it was “amazing” no one was seriously hurt or killed in the 1:40 p.m. blaze that prompted the city’s entire fire unit to respond.

More than 100 tenants were forced out of their homes Sunday afternoon, but many were trickling back into the building Sunday night.

All eleven units on the fifth floor were condemned, along with units above and below unit No. 504, where the fire originated, according to Battalion Chief Jeff Oatman of Lancaster Fire Bureau.

Two tenants were taken to Lancaster General Hospital and treated for smoke inhalation, and three firefighters were treated at the scene for heat exhaustion.

Investigators said “careless smoking” inside the fifth-floor unit was to blame. One of the two men who lived there apparently had been smoking prior to leaving the building, officials said. The cigarette smoldered in the living room and triggered the blaze.

The 9-story, 71-unit structure at 10 S. Prince St., is believed to have been built in the 1960s. The top five floors sustained the most damage and those residents were initially asked to prepare for a night away from home. About 9 p.m., some of those tenants were allowed back inside.

Structural damages were estimated late Sunday night to be about $340,000. That preliminary estimate could climb when tenants return and survey damages to their belongings.

For tenants whose apartments were condemned or those didn’t want to return Sunday night, refuge was offered at St. James Episcopal Church on North Prince Street into Sunday evening. The Red Cross reported that a number of displaced residents were put up in hotels and were given assistance with food and clothing.

Many of the residents are staying with friends and family.

Lancaster Mayor Rick Gray praised police and firefighters for rushing into the building, likely saving lives amid a chaotic scene. Tenants dotted the balconies and also screamed for help from inside their apartments, first-responders said.

“It looks like there were heroic efforts,” Gray said at the fire scene, which also sweltered under a blazing sun and temperatures in the mid-80s. “Thank God, nobody was seriously injured. ... It shows what we pay taxes for.”

Brian Klugh, a city battalion fire chief, said firefighters reacted to the chaotic scene by simply doing their jobs.

“Any building with that many people in it, there is always a concern,” Klugh said. “There was an incredible life-safety issue, as far as life-load there. Rescue was our first priority.”

Todd Grager was the first police officer to enter the burning building.

He hurried to the fourth floor where he was met by a thick smoke and two firefighters who beat him to the scene. As the firefighters moved to the fifth floor, Grager said he started evacuating the building’s bottom floors.

In one fourth-floor unit, he encountered a man in his 60’s who was “in bad shape.” The man was confined to his room because he needed an electric-powered oxygen machine to breathe.

Grager radioed for personnel on the ground to bring a portable oxygen source and waited with the man — not knowing exactly if, and when, help would arrive.

Rescue workers reached the man and helped evacuate him to ground level. He was treated at Lancaster General Hospital for smoke inhalation and released later in the day.

Meanwhile, Grager and other officers scoured the apartments, denoting rooms that had been checked for tenants with a felt-tipped pen.

One woman was helped from her fifth-floor balcony by firefighters on a tower ladder. Helping the woman from inside the building would have been too risky.

Another tenant, on the ninth floor, ran to the building’s roof. Chris Snavely, 26, said he called 911 and waited for help as the building burned beneath him. The tower ladder carried firefighters to the roof and Snavely was helped to the ground.

Blocks surrounding the building were closed for seven hours during the rescues and subsequent venting of smoke from the building.

More than 60 firefighters responded to the scene, including several city firefighters who were at the station for a 14-hour overnight shift. Six medical vehicles holding EMS workers also parked on the block. The two men who inhaled smoke were helped to ambulances on stretchers, witnesses said.

Firefighters stayed cool with ice and water provided by their wives and American Red Cross workers. Crews also refreshed under the flow of a running hydrant.

Copyright 2009 Lancaster Newspapers, Inc.