Ambridge apartment resident smelled electrical odor an hour before the fire


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An early morning fire in Ambridge was out of control for more than five hours, destroying a 40-year-old men's clothing shop and displacing residents in upstairs apartments.

No one was killed in the blaze at Charles Men's Store at 541 Merchant St., but all three floors of the building were gutted as crews poured water on the roof past 10:30 a.m. The fire was declared under control by noon.

Ambridge acting fire Chief Robert Gottschalk said two firefighters fell through a stairwell that had collpsed but were not injured.

Chief Gottschalk said one person went to the hospital for smoke inhalation.

The fire spread only to the back of neighboring building, 545 Merchant St. It wasn't immediately clear who owns or occupies that structure.

The American Red Cross's southwestern Pennsylvania chapter is providing clothing and food for all eight people affected and shelter for five of them.

Chief Gottschalk said the blaze likely started on the first floor, but the cause is still under investigation. All three floors partially collapsed.

The fire was reported at 5:20 a.m. Ten fire companies responded, he said, and the fire marshal was en route about 11 a.m.

Ambridge police Officer Jim Mann said a tenant in the upstairs apartment later reported that he had smelled some kind of electrical odor when he left for work around 4:30 a.m. -- an hour before anyone called 911.

"He smelled something burning, and he didn't think anything of it," Officer Mann said.

Co-owners Norm DiClemente, of Moon, and his sister Linda Haskins, a Coraopolis resident and manager of the eight apartments, said the clothing business catered to men of all sizes and attracted customers from as far west as Ohio and as far south as West Virginia.

Their sister Donna Durick also owns a share of the business and it was her primary source of income. She was in Texas when she got word and is on her way to Ambridge.

"Forty years of blood, sweat and tears in this place, and it's burned," Ms. Haskins said.

The store was full with inventory for winter. She who estimated $100,000 worth of merchandise was lost.

Ms. Haskins said she doesn't know if the family will attempt to reopen the business, established by their father in 1972. She and her siblings are aging now, she said, and their kids have their own careers.

"It's like losing a family member -- a close family member," Ms. Haskins said.

Ms. Haskins said five of the eight apartments were occupied.

The roof is completely gone. Half the navy awning out front is burned but the gold letters spelling out the store name are mostly unscathed.

A wind chime still hangs in a second-story window. Water drips down onto the entrance.

Melvin Little, 73, lived in one of the apartments. He was awake and quickly escaped when smoke poured out of the building he's lived in for 13 years.

He descended the fire escape and likened the smoke to a smoke machine.

"The smoke was so intense I knew I couldn't get through to the front," he said.

Mr. Little left with the clothes he was wearing and grabbed only his keys and wallet.

"Right now there's like a big blank," he said. "I can't go back to this apartment."

breaking - neigh_west

Molly Born: mborn@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1944 and on Twitter @BornToLede. Moriah Balingit contributed.


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