MONONGAH — Smoke and fire engulfed the third floor of a quiet residence in Monongah Wednesday afternoon, as rescue workers escorted residents covered in ash to the street below.
Some of those trapped on the upper floors used aerial ladders from fire engines to reach safety. Others came out of the front, watching the disaster that engulfed their home in amazement.
Police officers closed Camden Road, located in the heart of downtown Monongah, as backup fire engines arrived.
Eight fire trucks from as far away as Bridgeport raced to the scene, and unwitting drivers slowed down as they passed, unsure what to do with the tragedy unfolding before them.
The fire broke out around 2:25 p.m., but residents and first responders alike remain unsure of its cause and the extent of the damage.
A fire broke out in an upstairs apartment in the multi-housing complex, and first responders moved it to the upstairs and rooftop units. No injuries were reported, Monongah Volunteer Fire Department Chief Harless McCombs said.
A woman, who declined to give her name, lives in a unit next door to the one where the fire originated. She was packing her lunch for a night shift at work when she heard a loud noise and went to investigate.
“I didn’t know where it came from,” she said. “The next thing I knew I heard, ‘Oh my God!’ Oh, my God!'”
The woman said she quickly realized that a fire had broken out, and heard her neighbors’ screams through the walls. Smoke seeped into her apartment and she ran out, as other residents screamed for those inside to flee.
In her haste, the woman did not retrieve her cats, and she asked the firefighters present at the scene to rescue them. A rescue worker brought one of them in a small carrier, but gave no update on the other — a kitten.
She said that if her daughter had not been stuck at school, they would have had a cat fight before leaving the apartment. “I still have one there,” she said regretfully.
During the interview, a firefighter cautiously approached the woman from the wreckage. He told her that the tabby cat had been found, but had died in the fire. The woman burst into tears.
All around her, panic and confusion were written on the faces of residents and community members who stood waiting.
Matthew Reynolds, who lives on the second floor of the house, was there when the fire broke out. But he left his house with no idea what had happened, just getting his two cats into their carriers when he heard screaming.
Breanna Stewart works at the Family Dollar, across the street from the residence. She was working when the fire broke out, and said a customer pointed out the flames.
Stewart called 911 and said first responders arrived at the scene within minutes. “There was a couple who had to get off the roof and get down,” she said.
Other community members believe the fire occurred at nearby Monongah Middle School. Charlotte Robinson said her great-granddaughter was in class when the fire broke out. “It scared me,” she added.
Renee Goins was on her way to a Family Dollar when she saw the road blocked by first responders. She called a friend whose daughter attended Monongah Middle School, fearing she might be in danger.
“The guys were standing up so you couldn’t get in,” Goins said, pointing to police officers at the scene. “I was worried.”
Jake Bouder, who works at Monongah Middle School, said the school chose to evacuate to nearby Monongah Elementary after learning of the fire. The crisis delayed after-school pickup, meaning students and faculty were stuck inside until the road was clear.
Faculty and staff at Monongah Middle School were allowed back into the building after receiving full clearance so they could retrieve their personal belongings for the day, Marion County School District Superintendent Donna Heston said. There were no reports of injuries.
She noted that both campuses will be closed on Thursday due to an unscheduled power outage from Mon Power.
Residents of the complex are facing the effects of the fire, unsure of where they will spend the night.
Currently, relief organizations such as the American Red Cross are working to provide housing and other accommodations to residents to ensure their safety.
“We have been notified of the fire and have reached out to those affected to find out what assistance is needed,” said Jason Keeling, executive director of the Allegheny Heights Red Cross chapter.
The Times West Virginian will provide updates as new information on fire surfaces.