The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

April 13, 2014

Fire’s cause points to ‘human error’

Largest blaze in memory could top $2 million in damages

By Michael Roknick
Herald Business Editor

PYMATUNING TOWNSHIP — A mammoth fire that swept through Greenville-Reynolds Industrial Park on Friday was blamed on “human error’’ with preliminary damage estimates between $2 and $3 million.

A total of 52 fire companies from Mercer and surrounding counties arrived to fight the blaze, said David King, chief of the Hempfield Fire Department. King was co-commander of the fire scene along with Transfer Fire Chief Ed Robinson.

While there are no records on the size of fires in Mercer County, the blaze is the largest in living memory, and possibly in county history, in terms of resources used to quell it and total square feet under roof destroyed.

Park officials said two buildings totaling 58,000 square feet of manufacturing and warehouse space was destroyed or received some type of damage in the Pymatuning Township section of the park. Damage on a third nearby empty warehouse was still being assessed, but it appeared not to have sustained any major harm.

“I’ve been doing this for 32 years, and I’ve never seen anything like the size of this,’’ King said while assessing the damage Saturday morning.

Standing amid the ruins Saturday morning, King said officials were pretty sure what caused the blaze and would only say it was due to “human error.’’ He declined to comment further as the fire marshal had not issued a final report.

Starting in a Salem Tube Co. warehouse shortly before 5:30 p.m., the blaze quickly spread in the old building constructed during World War II, King said. Construction of the building harkens to the park’s early days when it served as Camp Reynolds for the Army. Its wooden roof quickly caught on fire which destroyed the structure.

It housed large metal and plastic containers, the majority of which were apparently empty. However, firefighters arriving early said they saw several explode and shoot flames 100 feet into the air. As of Saturday morning officials didn’t know what  might have been in the containers.

Enormous, volcano-sized plumes of black, acrid smoke filled the atmosphere and could be seen more than 20 miles away.

A couple of vehicles left at the scene were covered in chunks of blackened debris that resembled small brimstones.

Emergency crews decided early there was no way to save the warehouse. Instead, all efforts were made to contain the blaze.

Despite the onslaught of more than 100 firefighters, four aerial trucks, two snorkel trucks along with scores of regular fire trucks and water tanker trucks, it wasn’t enough to keep the blaze from spreading.

All 26 Mercer County fire departments were called in.

Fire tankers carrying water were in high demand as all the nearby units were being used to capacity. A make-shift water filling station was established for tankers at the Transfer VFW, a half mile away.

“We asked for every tanker that was available, and we used every single one of them,’’ King said.

In addition to the warehouse owned by the tube producer, Furnace Mineral Products Co. had its building destroyed. The company, which supplies materials to reline power plant furnaces along with other products, had a large shipment ready to go, but it was consumed, King said.

Amazingly, R&J Alloys, a specialty metals business which sits just a dozen yards from the Salem Tube warehouse, got away with just water and minor fire damage. On Friday night firefighters said they used a large amount of their resources to keep that building from catching ablaze.

On Saturday, a few flames could still be seen flickering inside of what little remained of the warehouse. Firefighters said it may take up to three days for all the flames to cease, but there was no danger of more destruction.   

As King examined the ruins he spotted a steel I-beam that was folded over.

“The fire was so hot it just bent this I-beam like a pretzel,’’ he said.

His best guess preliminary estimate on the cost of devastation was $2 million.

“But that’s a very, very low estimate,’’ King said. “We have to look at things like the loss of equipment, supplies and the interruption of services for businesses. That figure is very likely to rise.’’

Officially, no firefighter was injured, but a couple were seen hobbling around Saturday morning with bleary-eyes and an assortment of leg, back, arm and “anywhere-there’s-a-muscle’’ aches.

Fire crews left the scene around 2 a.m., but Transfer Fire Department was called back about an hour later as the blaze rekindled.

“I didn’t get back to our station until 3 a.m.,’’ said Andy Bush, South Pymatuning Township co-chief.

Bone tired and finding it difficult to walk mid-Saturday morning, Bush said he counted himself lucky.

 “I talked with my brother who’s with the Clark Fire Department,’’ Bush said. “He can barely move.’’