A tenant living in an Ambridge apartment detected an electrical smell about an hour before someone called 911 to report a fire that gutted the three-story building, including a men's clothing store, police said.
The resident in a flat above Charles Men's Store in the 500 block of Merchant Street told police he smelled something burning when he left for work around 4:30 a.m. Friday, but didn't think much of it at the time, said acting Ambridge police Chief Jim Mann.
The blaze likely started on the first floor, Ambridge's acting fire Chief Robert Gottschalk said, but the cause is still undetermined. Police said officials don't suspect foul play.
No one was injured in the fire, which burned out of control for five hours. One person was treated for smoke inhalation and later released, and two firefighters fell through a stairwell but were unhurt, Chief Gottschalk said. The fire was declared under control by noon.
Eight apartments and the decades-old men's clothing store were destroyed, displacing eight residents. All three floors partially collapsed.
The investigation into the blaze will resume next week, Chief Gottschalk said.
"We are not going to be really able to go into the building until Monday or Tuesday due to the collapse and the water still coming down," he said.
The sides of the building are weak, he added, and the borough building inspector was still on scene about 6 p.m. Friday to determine whether any parts would need to be torn down.
Ten fire companies responded to the blaze, Chief Gottschalk said. Two additional tanker trucks were on scene to provide extra water, and the fire marshal was on scene through the afternoon.
Melvin Little, 73, lived in one of the apartments and was awake when he saw billowing smoke he likened to a smoke machine.
"The smoke was so intense I knew I couldn't get through to the front," he said.
The fire spread to part of the neighboring building, 545 Merchant St., owned by Al Sacco, its only resident who also operates a business in the bottom floor.
He said crews ripped out the ceilings in his building looking for damage. "It's a mess," he said. "It looks like a cyclone hit it."
He has weeks of clean-up ahead but is thankful his building was mostly spared.
"At least I have something to clean."
The clothing store's co-owners Norm DiClemente, of Moon, and his sister Linda Haskins, a Coraopolis resident and manager of the apartments, said their business attracted customers from as far as Ohio and West Virginia.
"Forty years of blood, sweat and tears in this place, and it's burned," Ms. Haskins said.
The store, which residents remember as a hallmark of the community, was full with inventory for winter. Ms. Haskins estimated $100,000 worth of merchandise was lost. The building's roof is gone, and half the navy awning out front was burned. The brushed gold letters spelling out the store name were mostly unscathed.
Ms. Haskins said she doesn't know if the family will attempt to reopen the business, purchased 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.
Molly Born: email@example.com or 412-263-1944.