Condo owners regroup after blaze in Shadyside tower

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The lights were on and some residents were settling back in at the Amberson Towers condominium in Shadyside Friday afternoon. It was one day after a man intentionally started a fire in his own unit there, officials said, hours before he was to be evicted.

Power was expected to be restored Friday and appeared to be working most places, except on parts of the fifth floor, where the fire originated.

Pittsburgh fire Chief Darryl Jones said the Red Cross of Southwestern Pennsylvania assisted four displaced people Thursday, and all others were able to stay in their units or made arrangements elsewhere.

Property manager Donald Gross said he was not available to comment. The status of other utilities, shut off as a safety precaution, was unavailable.

Mark Williams, 60, was found dead in the bedroom in condo No. 521, where fire officials say the blaze originated. This unit had once been registered to Mr. Williams before it was turned over to the Towers in a sheriff's sale after lengthy disputes with the management company, court documents show.

Investigators determined the occupant of No. 521 disconnected the natural gas line behind the stove in the kitchen before letting the condo fill with gas. The gas was ignited around the kitchen area, causing an explosion, police said. Chief Jones said Friday investigators might never determine what sparked the fire.

Chief Jones said he does not release estimates, but characterized the damage as heavy.

Friday afternoon, small puddles of water still pooled in some stairwells. A faint smell of smoke pervaded the building and was immediately noticeable in the lobby. The odor was stronger on the fifth floor.

Other than the lingering smell, several floors appeared physically unscathed. Engineers Thursday afternoon determined the building is structurally sound. A crack in the facade was cosmetic, Chief Jones said.

Restoration and cleaning crews used hanging utility lights, snaking extension cords through the hallways to light their way. Some workers wiped down walls of soot leading up to unit 521.

Elan Vassel, who lives in unit 514, is among those displaced. The morning of the fire, he shut himself in the bathroom with a towel under the door, because he said the smoke was too thick and powerful for him to evacuate as some others did on his floor.

Mr. Vassel was able to leave the building sometime after 9 a.m. His sister, Chan-elle Vassel, drove in from Philadelphia to take him the six hours across state to stay with her for a week. His belongings aren't damaged, but his unit isn't livable either, as it sustained smoke and soot damage and a warped floor, he said.

It'll be an inconvenience: Mr. Vassel will have to take a week off from his job cleaning at the Allegheny Center. Like many, he said he was just grateful to be alive.

"I thought I was going to die," Mr. Vassel said. He reckoned at one point: "It may be my time to go."

The fire didn't end Debra Rudel's plans to tour some prospective condos for her son, Eric. Her real estate agent, Karen Sherer, said she called Friday morning to make sure the lights were on and, when the clan arrived, Ms. Sherer showcased three vacant units as planned.

At first, Ms. Rudel didn't put two and two together when she heard about a condo fire in Shadyside.

"It made no difference to me," she said of her scheduled visit. "I didn't even know there was a fire."

"Her mother had to tell her!" Judy Levick, who is her mother, chimed in.

Some interactions among neighbors after the fire were marked by generosity.

Ruth Goldman, who lives on the ninth floor, invited four displaced residents to stay overnight in her undamaged condo. She was happy to open her doors -- with one caveat.

"I said, 'I'll give you a bed, but I don't cook,' " she said.

So the group went to a Chinese restaurant in East Liberty for dinner, and a woman who said she was from Mount Ararat Baptist Church picked up the tab for the whole table, Ms. Goldman said.

A church employee said members were performing acts of random kindness during Lent.

How did she know they were Amberson Towers residents?

"I guess we looked like we need a friend," Ms. Goldman said.

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Molly Born: mborn@post-gazette.com, or 412-263-1944 or on Twitter @borntolede.


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