Investigators believe arson caused fatal 'Dante's Inferno' Shadyside high-rise fire

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Mark Williams was found dead in the bedroom of his Shadyside condo, the gas line disconnected, in a fire that city officials say was intentionally set hours before he was to be evicted.

Pittsburgh fire investigators believe the Thursday morning blaze originated in that unit, No. 521, in the Amberson Towers condo building on Bayard Road and that its occupant, a 60-year-old man, disconnected the line behind the stove in the kitchen before letting the condo fill with gas. The gas was ignited by several possible sources around the kitchen area, causing an explosion, police said.

City officials would not name the man, but the age matches that of Mr. Williams, who was the registered owner of that unit, according to court records.

Residents recall evacuation from burning building

The residents of a Shadyside building that caught fire this morning talk about the evacuation process. (Video by Nate Guidry; 3/21/2013)

Pittsburgh police said the man locked his front door before the explosion, which collapsed several walls inside the condo and blew the front door and metal frame into the nearby hallway. It damaged several nearby condos, police said.

The fire was reported at 7:13 a.m. in the nine-story condo complex.

"It was 'Dante's Inferno,'" Battalion Chief Tim Kopicko said. "It was hell in there."

Some people on the fifth floor reported hearing the explosion.

University of Pittsburgh dental student Tom Korpar, who lives next door to where the fire started, said it blew part of the kitchen wall he shares with that condo into his own unit.

He said his interactions with his neighbor were short and that the man wasn't talkative.

The man was found in bed and suffered some burns to his back, Fire Chief Darryl Jones said. Chief Kopicko said Apt. 521, where the fire started, was heavily damaged.

The Allegheny County medical examiner's office said Mr. Williams died of thermal and inhalation injuries; the manner of death is pending investigation by the fire marshal.

Court records show that Mr. Williams was being evicted because he had lost the unit when a sheriff's sale turned it over to Amberson Towers.

Disputes with management date back several years. In 2011, he was sued by the Towers, which claimed he owed them $10,500 plus late fees. Mr. Williams in turn claimed that he was in good standing and that the building management's actions were punitive.

Chief Kopicko said it took crews some time to get into position, but the fire was under control in about 30 minutes.

One older man and one older woman were taken to a hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation, according to police.

The Pittsburgh police fire and arson unit, the bomb squad, homicide detectives and the Allegheny County fire and explosions unit assisted in the investigation.

Authorities were letting some people return to their condos to retrieve belongings Thursday afternoon. Chief Jones said 108 units were without power and 15 of those were also without water. Power is expected to be restored today.

Structural engineers in the afternoon determined the building is structurally sound, and a crack in the facade was only cosmetic, Chief Jones said.

Residents reported seeing debris in the hallways on the fifth floor. Some saw people leaning out windows.

Acting under a high-rise tactical plan, firefighters allowed some people out but kept others in their condos. The "defend in place" tactic was one reason there weren't more fatalities, said Chief Jones. The building's design, including its fire-resistant units, made it safer for some residents to stay inside, sheltered away from powerful flames and debris while crews put the fire out.

"It's the worst I've seen since I've been here," he said, referring to condo fires. He's been with the bureau six years.

During the morning, some residents were in the building's lobby and others were being provided with temporary shelter in the gymnasium of Winchester Thurston School nearby.

Barbara Hepner, who lives on the seventh floor, was already mourning a great loss: Her ailing 94-year-old father died in his own eighth-floor unit in the same building Wednesday. Ms. Hepner's family was in town for the funeral. Her brother, who was staying in their parents' condo, helped their mother down eight levels to safety.

"He said it was so bad he thought he wasn't going to be able to breathe anymore," she said.

As she was trying to regroup after making it out safe, Ms. Hepner was getting calls about funeral arrangements and remembered a eulogy for her father was inside the building. She was able to get back into her unit, which was spared much damage. But items inside her mother's unit were covered with soot and damaged by smoke. She was able to recover the speech for her dad.

Her sister, Evva Hepner, who was in town for the funeral, said: "You feel like you're in a bad movie."

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Molly Born:, 412-263-1944 and on Twitter: @borntolede. Kaitlynn Riely contributed. First Published March 21, 2013 11:45 AM


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