All 124 apartments of the 13-story Mahanoy Elderly Apartment Building – Mahanoy City Senior Living Center, located at 10 W. Center St., Mahanoy City, had to be evacuated, as hundreds of firefighters and emergency personnel were called to a fire that started in a 10th floor apartment just after 2 p.m. yesterday.
Volunteer firefighters from the Citizen's Fire Company in Mahanoy City were first to arrive and eventually extinguished the rising smoke and flames.
Emergency responders rushed to evacuate all 128 tenants, most of whom were disabled or required wheelchairs, from the smoke-filled building across the street to the James Rhoades Community Center or medical triage area located in the Rite Aid Drug Store parking lot. At both locations tenants were provided shelter, food and water.
Reportedly, the fire started when Richard Getter, 76, of Apt. 1005, emptied his ashtray into a paper bag, causing a fire which destroyed his apartment and most of his belongings. Getter was taken to St. Catherine's Hospital, Ashland, for treatment of smoke inhalation.
Lawrence "Larry" Picciano, 96, who lives on the 13th floor, said he has lived in the high rise for more than 20 years and has never been through anything like this before.
Lois Vezo, 65, who lives on the 11th floor, put a wet cloth under her door after hearing the fire alarm and seeing smoke coming in under her door. She chose to evacuate when firefighters and police went from door to door alerting residents to evacuate the building.
Vezo, who just received cortisone shots from her doctor, also helped two fellow disabled residents make it down 11 flights of steps.
"Everyone had a hard time evacuating as most of us are elderly or disabled," stated Vezo. "We (residents) work together and always look after each other."
Some residents remembered seeing some tenants crawling down the steps, also pointing out that they were quickly helped by emergency responders, some of whom even put chairs in the hallways for waiting tenants. Some tenants opted to place "HELP" signs at their windows, to show firefighters that they were still in the apartment.
Jean Seibert, executive director, ARDCO, who manages the James Rhoades Center, stated her appreciation to the Mahanoy City Rite Aid and Mahanoy City Food Store, operated by the Agosti family, for donating food, drinks, coolers and other items to the displaced residents and firefighters. She also stated her appreciation to all the volunteers who showed up to help with displaced tenants, who were sheltered on both floors of the center.
At 5:45 p.m., after an interview and inspections from state police fire marshal John F. Burns, of the Frackville barracks, and Mahanoy City Fire Chief Randall Kalce and Police Chief Mark Wiekrykas, tenants on all floor, except the 10th floor, were allowed back into their apartments.
Burns ruled the fire accidental.
Pat Grabey, who lives on the sixth floor, said she chose to evacuate after she heard a message over the high rise's intercom from building manager Lisa Zilker, to calmly exit the building.
"I am extremely thankful to all the brave firefighters, police and other responders who came to our rescue," Grabey added. "Thank you."
Responding were RITs (Rapid Intervention Teams) from the Tamaqua Rescue Squad and Pottsville, and fire companies from Tamaqua, Hometown, Ryan Township, Mahanoy City, Pottsville, West Mahanoy Township, Altamont, Butler Township, Schuylkill Haven, McAdoo, Shenandoah and Barnesville.
Dozens of fire police from surrounding fire companies closed SR54 and adjacent roads for the duration. The Schuylkill County Emergency Management Agency was also on scene with its command vehicle monitoring and handling various operations.
Sandy Kahley, who lives on the seventh floor, said she was sitting on a bench in front of the building when she heard the fire alarm go off. She said all the responders were so polite and were quick to offer assistance to everyone.
"A job well done", she added.
RuthAnn Beninsky, who lives on the 13th floor, said she didn't even have time to put her shoes on before she evacuated.
A medical triage area was setup as part of the protocol in response to a high rise fire. Responding ambulances were from Tamaqua, Ryan Township, Mahanoy City, Pottsville, Shenandoah, Hazleton and Frackville.
Volunteers from the Citizen's Fire Company, Tamaqua, also served as one of the two air monitoring teams on scene.
All tenants on the 10th floor and one tenant on the ninth floor are temporarily displaced while cleanup crews spend the next few days restoring the damaged 10th floor; which will be reopened once it is deemed safe. Damage is estimated to be around $30,000.
In addition to providing snacks and cold refreshments to all the emergency responders and displaced tenants, volunteers with the Schuylkill and Eastern Northumberland Chapter of the American Red Cross stayed on scene to provide temporary hotel housing for the 10 displaced residents, in addition to one tenant who was located directly below the fire on the ninth floor.
Representatives from the Schuylkill County Area Agency on Aging and Schuylkill County Office of Senior Services were also on scene providing support to affected residents.
A firefighter also went to the hospital for heat exhaustion as temperatures climbed into the 90s. A young girl was also taken to the hospital after somehow injuring herself on a fire hose. Her injury was noted to be very minor. No other serious injuries were reported.
Joann "Joanee" H. Wilner, who has lived on the 11th floor for more than 13 years, said she was so nervous that she was crying as she never experienced anything like this before.
"I never thought I would make it down the steps, but credit to God, I did," pointing out that 2002 was the last time she remembers taking the steps.