The cause of an early Friday apartment house fire that claimed one life and displaced more than a dozen others is considered undetermined.
The identity of the deceased — a man — had not been released Friday by Crawford County coroner Scott Schell, pending final confirmation of the man's identity and notification of next of kin. Schell said no autopsy was planned, but tissue samples of the deceased had been taken for testing.
Meadville Central Fire Department was called to 697 Terrace St., a 13-unit apartment house, at 1:43 a.m. with the first fire units rolling on scene at 1:48. However, flames already were shooting out of the front of the building at that time, according to Chief Evan Hasko.
Three people who were trapped on different porch roofs of the building had to be rescued by firefighters. Authorities discovered the body of the deceased in rubble inside the building at 11:45 a.m. after it was determined earlier the whereabouts of one person was unknown.
No one was injured in fighting the fire, Hasko said.
Firemen had to use five hydrants in areas around the building, Hasko said. Initially, two 4-inch line hydrants along Terrace Street — one north and one south of the building — were used but were drawing against each other, lowering pressure.
Hasko said upward of 35 firefighters were on the scene — from Meadville as well as volunteer fire departments of West Mead 1 and 2, Vernon Township and Vernon Central, Hayfield Township and Saegertown. Meadville Police Department, Auxiliary Police and Meadville Area Ambulance Service also assisted.
Cochranton Volunteer Fire Department was put on standby at one of the West Mead stations in case of another fire in the central part of the county.
The apartment house, which dated to 1864, was within the historic Terrace Street former mansion area of the city.
A total of 16 people lived in the 13 apartments, Hasko said. There were 11 out of 14 residents who went to the Crawford County Mental Health Awareness Program (CHAPS) office at 944 Liberty St. for temporary shelter and assistance from the American Red Cross, Hasko said. Of the remaining two, there was one person who was not home at the time of the fire and the deceased.
The deceased was found inside the building at the back of the first floor amongst rubble from the second and third floors, Hasko said. Damage was extensive with floors collapsing and it was unknown if the deceased lived on the second or third floors.
Building owner John Kleffel told the Tribune that a resident from a third-floor apartment was unaccounted for Friday morning.
"It’s just a big shock," Kleffel said. "I didn’t hear anything, but I woke up when I saw the flashing lights (of emergency vehicles)."
Kleffel lives next to the building — at 709 Terrace St. — which is another apartment building he owns.
The burned building had security cameras, as well as battery-operated smoke detectors. The security cameras for the burned building had monitors in the other apartment building, Kleffel said. Kleffel said when he awoke and noticed the fire, he checked the security cameras' monitors, saw them flicker and then go dark.
The Pennsylvania State Police Fire Marshal's Office and Meadville Police Department have taken over the investigation, Hasko said. However, there's nothing to indicate the blaze was suspicious, Hasko said.
"Right now, it's undetermined," Hasko said. "There's just too much destruction and it was unsafe to go in."
The gutted-out shell of the building was knocked down Friday afternoon because of safety concerns, Hasko said.
Meadville Police Department Chief Michael Tautin agreed with Hasko's assessment.
"We're still early in the investigation, but there's nothing to point to it being suspicious," Tautin said. "It's going to take awhile."
Investigators will interview residents of the apartments in the coming days, Tautin said.
Meanwhile, CHAPS, spent Friday working with the residents and Kleffel to get the residents resettled. Many of the apartment house residents are CHAPS clients.
"We’re getting them immediate needs, making sure they’re getting their medication replaced," said Lynn McUmber, executive director of CHAPS. "(The) Red Cross came and was able to give them an initial fund to get some immediate clothing. We connected with them to get their medications refilled. Now, we’re getting them connected to either families or friends or hotels."
McUmber said the next step will be CHAPS' housing department assisting them find new places to live.
Though the residents lost everything, many in the community already have been generous.
"We’re encouraging (financial) donations or donations of gift cards, so people can get what they need, both for the immediate clothing and trying to set up an apartment," McUmber said.
"I think there’s a little bit of dignity in going out and being able to get your own socks and underwear and jeans that fit you," she said. "We already got a number of people out to Walmart to get some basics."
Area landlords, too, stepped forward offering units they had available, McUmber said.
Kleffel, too, was in touch with CHAPS throughout the day, McUmber said.
"He’s a very good landlord we know well," she said.
Amanda Burke, CHAPS' psychological rehabilitation director, said CHAPS will help residents and get them resources to address the trauma of the fire.
You can help
To aid the victims of Friday's fire on Terrace Street contact the CHAPS office at (814) 333-2924 or via its Facebook page www.facebook.com/chapsinc.org/