HOMER CITY, Pa. -- Joi Taylor awoke about 3:45 a.m. Thursday to what sounded like a crash. She looked through a window in her Homer City house and saw the heating company across the street going up in flames.
She screamed for her husband, James, who called 911, while she ran into the backyard with their 11- and 9-year-old grandchildren.
Within minutes, neighbors said, propane tanks were exploding. Hours later, all that remained were a few battered brick walls and mangled beams of metal from the building that housed Accent Fuel and Northeastern Flooring.
"It was unreal," Ms. Taylor said. "It was like a nightmare."
Neighbors left their houses in their pajamas after Homer City firefighters -- who reported hearing at least four explosions in their first 45 minutes on the scene -- evacuated them as a precaution.
"It was nothing that was toxic," second assistant fire Chief Terry Gardner said, "but at the time we weren't sure."
Firefighters doused nearby buildings to try to prevent the flames from spreading. At some point, a firefighter slipped on ice, was checked for minor injuries and then went home for the remainder of the day.
Chief Gardner asked a state police fire marshal to investigate the cause of the blaze. A representative from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives also visited the site.
The exact cause of the fire was not clear Wednesday. Chief Gardner said officials intend to investigate whether it might be connected to a fire that happened at a nearby concrete plant about 2:45 a.m. Saturday. Chief Gardner said he was still awaiting a report from the state police fire marshal that would tell him the cause of that fire.
The fuel business, the chief said, was a "total loss" and most of the flooring business was damaged as well.
Mark Coleman, who owns Accent Fuel, declined to comment. His daughter, Courtney Coleman, who also works for the company, said she learned of the fire at 4:26 a.m. when her mother called to tell her "the office had burned to the ground."
"I didn't even have time to think," she said.
Ms. Coleman, who lives in Pittsburgh, drove about an hour to Homer City and stood with her boyfriend Thursday morning, drinking coffee and watching as firefighters continued to drench the building in water.
She said the family has owned Accent Fuel for about 35 years and been in its Indiana Street location for about 15. She said the family was baffled by what could have caused the fire because that building serves primarily as office space and stores few chemicals.
Liz Navratil: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1438 or on Twitter @LizNavratil.
First Published December 19, 2013 7:20 AM