Investigation of fire in Homer City may take months
December 20, 2013 11:00 AM
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HOMER CITY — Homer City Borough police have taken the lead in the investigation into a fire early Thursday that destroyed the Accent Fuels Co. office and warehouse along West Indiana Street on the north edge of town.

Officials had little to report this morning about their search for the cause and point of origin of the massive fire. One investigator said it may be months before the cause is determined.

Smoke continued to rise from the rubble before sunrise this morning, and the site had been illuminated and kept under watch by police all night.

[PHOTO: Firefighters and other officials have been on the scene of the blaze in Homer City since it broke out Thursday morning. (Tom Peel/Gazette photo)]

Neighbors first reported seeing flames and hearing explosions in the building as early as 3:15 a.m. Although the flames had been extinguished by midday Thursday, firefighters were sent out at least four more times in the afternoon, evening and this morning to put out hot spots that flared up.

Salvage company workers late Thursday afternoon began to sort through the ruins and investigators assembled on site, photographing the area and interviewing neighbors.

Some nearby residents had gone without electric and telephone service for part of the day and were assessing the damage their houses had sustained from the intense heat of the fire. Those who had been evacuated from their homes were allowed to return. It also became clear that the adjacent homes had been spared from greater destruction.

One volunteer firefighter had a minor injury from falling on ice Thursday morning, but no other injuries were reported.

Of more than a dozen fire departments summoned to assist at the scene, a unit from the Clymer Volunteer Fire Department was unable to help. Their truck was involved in a traffic accident on the way to Homer City, said Homer City Volunteer Fire Department Second Assistant Chief Terry Gardner.

Meanwhile, Accent Fuels officials have set up an office along Route 119 in Center Township and planned to continue service to customers today.

The multilevel probe into the cause and origin of the fire includes the state police fire marshal’s office, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the Indiana County district attorney’s office. Homer City Chief Louis Sacco said the additional agencies bring needed manpower and investigative expertise to the probe, but it doesn’t signal a belief that the fire was arson.

“I need the personnel. We have interviewed a lot of people, we have all these neighbors here,” Sacco said. “So we had the assistance of the district attorney’s office to do these interviews.

“We’re a small department. I have two men canvassing the area and two county detectives came down and assisted our guys.”

Sacco declined to say where in the 17,000-square-foot structure the fire might have started.

“We have an idea but I cannot comment on it right now. I want the state police fire marshal and the ATF to conduct their investigation. Right now we need to make the scene safe … so until then, they are not going to go in there.

“There’s a lot of rubble in there, there’s a lot of … everything in there.”

Federal agents said their involvement is routine in commercial fires.

“It’s a combined effort on big fires like this,” said supervisory special agent Joe Price, one of several ATF officers inspecting the scene Thursday afternoon. “We work together.”

Steve Bartholomew, a public information officer at the ATF field office in Philadelphia, said he expected the site to be declared safe for investigators this morning.

“The ATF has committed fire investigators who bring special skill sets, including a fire engineer and electrical engineer that will be on-site today as part of our investigative team,” Bartholomew said. “This is because there is significant property damage, and it has been deemed a total loss with estimates in the millions of dollars. The process had to be methodical and the investigators want to be thorough.”

Finding the cause could “take anywhere from a day to several months,” he said.

“We first need to determine whether the fire was accidental or intentional, and then it would move from a fire investigation to an arson investigation. But it is way too premature to get into that.”

After the most of the assisting fire departments left the scene, Gardner pronounced the firefighters’ effort a success.

Evidence was an apartment house facing St. Clair Street, standing less than 10 feet from the ruined Accent Fuels building. It sustained two broken windows, which had been boarded up by midafternoon, and the people who live there had been allowed to return.

“These other buildings — other than some minor damage, some water here and there, we didn’t lose any other structures, thank goodness for that,” Gardner said. “That’s the houses across the street and on the back street directly adjacent to it. We ended up saving those structures. No one should be displaced or be left homeless by this.

“There was damage to some siding and windows here and there, but everyone should still be getting back in their homes. We didn’t lose any homes.

“We did a complete walk-around after everything was out and seeing how close those houses were. Those guys did a hell of a job keeping it from spreading through.”

Amy Rankin, of St. Clair Street, said some vinyl siding had melted from the front of her rented house and some belongings on the front porch were ruined by the heat.

The Accent Fuels building was less than 30 feet from her front door.

“They doused my house because the roof did ignite a little bit, I don’t know how bad it is up there yet,” Rankin said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. It spread so fast.”

Rankin said the glow from the fire lit up her bedroom at 3:15 a.m. Thursday. She woke and dressed her two sons, piled them into her vehicle on the street, and drove it through the side yard to take shelter behind their house.

She said electric service to her street was restored about 3 p.m.

The building housed Accent Fuels’ offices and a warehouse, along with a sister company, Coleman Supply, and a flooring retailer, Northeast Flooring. Accent’s lost inventory included a number of trucks and cars, and barrels of various petroleum products including motor oil, diesel and lubricants. No underground tanks or pipelines were on the property.

For now, Accent has reopened at 2320 Route 119 South at the Lucerne Road intersection, in a vacant company-owned building that formerly housed a Citgo gas station and convenience store.

Owner Mark Coleman said the telephone company expects to reconnect phone service there today with Accent Fuels’ usual numbers, and computers and Internet service are being set up in the offices.

“We are making deliveries today and we have trucks to service our customers,” Coleman said. “That is for all customers, residential and others.”

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