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Electrical fire damages 8th Street apartment building

Nov. 29, 2012 @ 12:00 AM

HUNTINGTON -- Dennis Cole sat in his 8th Street apartment studying Wednesday afternoon, when the faint smell of smoke brought sudden change for the first-year medical student at Marshall University.

Cole, 24, was among several displaced by a basement fire that spread throughout the LaSalle Apartments building at 1024 8th St. in Huntington. First word of the fire came at 1:42 p.m.

No major injuries were reported.

Timmy Chastain, an assistant state fire marshal, deemed the fire accidental. An electrician joined investigators saying it was ignited by an electrical short with the basement's old knob-and-tube wiring.

Tenants will not be allowed to reoccupy the six-unit, three-story building until those wiring issues are corrected. Fire damage could prolong the wait for Cole and others living on the building's north side, Chastain said.

The apartments house mostly college students, according to occupants. Authorities believe flames and smoke from the basement fire spread upstairs through a pipe chase.

It all started as Tom DeVilbiss, the building's maintenance man, worked to clear a clogged drain in Cole's first-floor apartment. He had removed the back off a sink outlet. It is from that outlet that DeVilbiss first noticed smoke rising from the basement.

DeVilbiss ran downstairs, threw drywall onto a shelving unit in an attempt to suppress the flames. But that action proved too late. The fire had sizably grown and reached the rafters.

"Oh yeah, it scared me," he said. "It freaked me out. I didn't have time to think."

Cole noticed a faint smell of smoke and initially thought he had left the stove on. He quickly left the apartment based upon DeVilbiss' orders. He grabbed his cell phone, but little else as he was unsure of the fire's impact.

"I didn't know what I needed to really grab," he said. "I don't even have my keys or wallet. I don't really have anything. I've got all of my books, all of my study stuff in there and I have all of this work to do."

Huntington Fire Chief Randy Ellis reported fire damage to the basement and the north side of each story above, including Cole's first-floor apartment. Smoke damage was reported throughout the building, affecting apartments on each side.

Ellis said the building's construction contributed to the quick-spreading fire. Like many buildings and houses in the city, older designs did not call for barriers, also known as fire stops, between floors. That created cavities, and in this case a pipe chase, between walls that run straight up from the structure's base to its ceiling. Those openings act as chimneys in a fire.

The installation of modern fire stops and other solutions would require significant remodeling, Ellis said.

"It's not simple," he said.

The LaSalle's size, along with fire being reported on all floors, prompted Ellis to call 27 firefighters and staff from across the city. All but one fire truck responded to the scene, and volunteer firefighters in Green Valley and Barboursville were placed on standby.

One firefighter received treatment for an injured finger, possibly broken, said Deputy Fire Chief Ralph Rider.

The state Fire Marshal's Office was asked to investigate. Ellis described that request as a matter of protocol.

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