Patrick Buchnowski and Randy Griffith
A state police fire marshal is searching for the cause of a fire that reduced three buildings to rubble and left at least 13 people homeless in Johnstown’s Moxham neighborhood late Thursday.
The six-alarm blaze destroyed two unoccupied structures and a five-unit apartment building in the 600 block of Coleman Avenue, city fire officials said.
The fire broke out in an unoccupied building around 10 p.m. and quickly spread to the buildings on each side as firefighters flooded the scene, city fire Chief Anthony Kovacic said.
Two more adjacent homes and some nearby garages also suffered serious damage.
“There was a lot of fire,” Kovacic said. “We called in every available firefighter.”
People living in the five units in the apartment complex fled the blaze uninjured, firefighters said.
“They got out before we got here,” assistant fire Chief Bob Statler said at the scene.
Carlton Nelson, who lived in one of the apartments with his girlfriend and two children, said he was home alone when he spotted flames and roused the neighbors.
“I woke up and seen a big orange ball coming out,” Nelson said. “I grabbed my shoes. I pounded on everybody’s door. The porch was engulfed. It was hot.”
The Salvation Army and Red Cross are helping displaced families, Kovacic said.
Resident Bob Miller, who formerly lived in the apartment building, said he was visiting friends nearby when the fire broke out.
“We heard it on the scanner,” Miller said. “We came down to see what was going on. There were embers going 100 feet up in the air.”
Several families living across the street were evacuated because of the intense heat, Kovacic said.
Firefighters battled the blaze using fire-suppression foam and water to keep the flames from spreading. Nearby homes were coated with foam for protection.
“We were able to prevent the fire from jumping the street,” the chief said.
Power was restored to those homes and residents were allowed back inside around 3 a.m., Kovacic said.
Multiple volunteer fire crews were on standby in city fire stations to protect other areas of the city while Johnstown firefighters handled the blaze.
The strategy changed when the fifth and sixth alarms were called.
“We started to pull them in as the evening went on,” Kovacic said. “I can’t remember a time when we called in so many resources to help keep us from losing the block.”
Six tankers were summoned to supply additional water. Water pressure was reduced when numerous hydrants were opened to battle the fire.
“You end up fighting each other for water,” Statler said.
No damage estimate was available.
Several suburban companies also supplied fire police to assist city officers with traffic and crowd control. Hundreds of onlookers packed the neighborhood.
The Red Cross is aiding six families, including 11 adults and two children who lived in the apartment complex and the house next to it.
“We’re providing food, clothing and shelter depending upon what their needs were,” said Lauren Ashley, Red Cross communication officer.
The unoccupied structure where the fire started had been condemned for some time, neighbors said.
“The picture window was broken out,” Moxham neighbor John Arnone said. “One of the neighbors said there were 25 cats living in there.”
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