Meadville Tribune

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January 29, 2014

Meadville apartment fire eyewitness describes odd smell hours before smoke appears; another spots white smoke on side of building facing downtown

Drivers, walkers warned of heavy ice across several blocks of downtown in wake of effort to fight fire

MEADVILLE — Mackenzie Leehan thought he noticed an odd odor in his girlfriend’s third-floor apartment Tuesday afternoon, but didn’t think too much about it.

About three hours later, Leehan and several others were running for their lives out of the apartment building at 390 Chestnut St. as smoke and flames tore through the upper stories, destroying the building.

“I smelled something a couple of hours ago that I think smelled a little strange,” Leehan said just after 6 p.m. as he stood out in the cold at Liberty and Chestnut streets watching the massive masonry building burn. “The apartment never smelled like that. It was not really even a burning smell — just something off.”

There are 12 apartments in the building and all the residents had been accounted for, a stunned John Labruzzo of Labruzzo Properties LLC of Meadville, said Tuesday night. Labruzzo Properties owns the building and Labruzzo and his brother, Joe, are partners in the business.

“It’s just a shame,” Labruzzo said. “There are people who lost everything. It’s kind of tough. I’m glad they all got out.”

Leehan said he’s just glad everyone in the building was able to get out.

“My girlfriend, Olivia, who lives in the place, was at work,” Leehan said. “I was in the apartment and smoke started coming in the door. The door was closed and it (smoke) was pouring in.”

Leehan ran out into the third floor hallway and saw smoking coming out of an apartment down the hall. Leehan knew that the woman who lived across the hall from the smoky apartment had an infant.

Leehan said rushed down the hall to warn her.

“She didn’t even have shoes on and the baby just a diaper— that’s it,” Leehan said.

Leehan said the only things he had besides the clothes he was wearing were his car keys, wallet and cellphone.

Leehan helped bring the woman and her young child out of the front of the building, he said.

“We went out the front where the smoke was, but once you came down the stairs (from the third floor) there wasn’t much smoke,” Leehan said. “I’m glad it (the smoke) was rolling in my door (as a warning).”

Cheryl Weiderspahn, wife of Crawford County Commissioner Chairman Francis Weiderspahn, had just left the nearby courthouse was walking down Chancery Lane headed to the YMCA when she noticed smoke around 5:50 p.m.

“I smelled a faint smell of smoke,” Cheryl said. “I saw white smoke coming out of the (roof) eaves on the side of the (apartment) building toward (down)town.”

“I didn’t see flames,” she continued. “I heard two young men banging on doors, yelling for people to get out.”

Cheryl said she ran to the front door of the apartment building herself.

“I went in the front door because I wanted to make sure somebody knew the place was on fire,” she said. “When I went in, I saw three young men banging on doors and screaming for people to get out.”

While all the people in the apartment house were accounted for, arrangements had to be made for housing Tuesday night.

Labruzzo said arrangements had been made with the Town & Country Motel in Vernon Township to house the residents there overnight Tuesday.

The building was insured, Labruzzo said.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do from here,” Labruzzo said.

The American Red Cross had been contacted to help provide further assistance to both the residents and firefighters on the scene, Joe Chriest, Meadville City Manager, said Tuesday.

Chriest said the assembly room in the basement of the Crawford County Courthouse and rooms at the YMCA, both near the fire scene, were being used as warming shelters.

Chriest urged those traveling in Meadville today to use extreme caution in the area around the apartment house fire scene.

Because of the subfreezing temperatures, roads became extremely icy from water being sprayed on the fire, Chriest said.

City streets crews have put down anti-skid in the area, Chriest said. The area where Chriest urges caution covers Arch Street to Liberty Street to Walnut Street to South Main Street  back to Arch Street.

Firemen from Meadville and at least nine other departments from surrounding townships and communities were on the scene, battling the fire — and extremely cold temperatures — well into Tuesday night.

“Tunie (Fire Chief Larndo (Tunie) Hedrick) pulled the guys out of the building (at 6:31 p.m.) because it wasn’t safe for them,” Chriest said around 9 p.m. Tuesday. “They’re battling it from the outside.”

The air temperature was 1 degree above zero when the fire was discovered around 5:50 p.m., according to the automated weather observation station at Port Meadville Airport. The air temperature at the airport had dropped to 2 degrees below zero just before 9 p.m. Tuesday.

Because the numerous fire trucks had been at the fire scene for hours running equipment that is powered off the trucks’ diesel engines, Klasen-McQuiston Energy Corp. of Cochranton was called to send a fuel truck to the scene for truck refueling.

The massive fire occupied departments from Meadville, West Mead 1, West Mead 2, Vernon Central, Vernon Township, Saegertown, Cochranton, Conneaut Lake Park, Conneaut Lake and East Mead.

It also stretched the fire department resources in central and western Crawford County.

Volunteer fire departments from Hayfield Township, Linesville, Summit Township and Greenwood Township in Crawford County and Utica in Venango County were put on standby to cover for any additional fire calls in central or western Crawford County.

Keith Gushard can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at kgushard@meadvilletribune.com.

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