Two dozen people displaced by fire in Oakland

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At least two dozen people -- many of them college students -- were displaced after a five-alarm fire began in an Oakland apartment building this morning.

Pittsburgh arson detective Michael Burns said an electrical problem in the ceiling of a basement apartment at 519 Zulema St. appears to have caused the blaze. He said he doubted any charges would be filed.

Fire Chief Darryl Jones said the first call for the fire came in at 7:47 a.m. and the first crews -- from a station on Allequippa Street -- made it there within three minutes.

The fire moved up through the building and into a building connected to it. A backdraft caused an explosion that sent bricks flying onto the roof of another nearby building, detective Burns said. People had cleared out of the buildings by the time the explosion occurred.

Chief Jones said firefighters searched through the first and second floors of the building where the fire began but could not make it to the third floor because the flames and smoke spread too quickly. Instead, he said, crews focused on making sure the blaze didn't spread any further.

Firefighters sprayed water on nearby buildings to prevent the blaze from spreading. Some of those buildings might have water damage.

The fire was brought under control about 9:30 a.m., but crews remained on the scene until about 1 p.m.

The building where the fire began has "heavy damage" and the chief said he planned to ask building inspectors to evaluate whether it should remain standing.

One firefighter had a minor injury -- a cut to the hand -- that did not require a trip to the hospital.

More than two-dozen people who lived in the area or had friends who lived in the affected buildings watched while smoke billowed out of the top of the building while firefighters dried to extinguish hot spots two hours later.

"I can't believe it's still on fire," said 20-year-old Tyler Matheny, a University of Pittsburgh sophomore who lived in the affected building and thought it also caught fire.

Mr. Matheny said he was at Panther Central almost a mile away when a friend who was sleeping at his apartment called him at 7:55 a.m. to say that there was a fire.

"You've never felt so helpless before," said Mr. Matheny. He said several of his teammates on the school's swimming and diving team offered to let him stay with them.

University of Pittsburgh dean of students Kathy Humphrey was at the scene, helping to coordinate housing for students who lived in the affected buildings and to notify their professors of classes they might be missing.

The local chapter of the American Red Cross is helping 16 people to find food and clothing.

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Liz Navratil: or 412-263-1438. Jon Schmitz:, 412-263-1868 and on Twitter @pgtraffic. First Published March 29, 2013 12:15 PM


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