Russ O Reilly
The Tribune-Democrat, Johnstown, Pa.
Jan. 23—The smell of smoke awakens Ava Kendall Corey’s memories of watching her parents’ house on St. Clair Road burn down as firefighters were unable to pull water from hydrants.
“My parents owned that house for 20 years,” she said. “The fact there was no water in (two) hydrants is a big deal.”
Three firefighters sustained burns while fighting the blaze in the early morning hours of Oct. 19.
A lot of the night was a blur to Corey, who called 911.
“I’m not a professional,” she said. “I can’t tell. They (firefighters) were running around, and nothing was really happening.”
Residential water pressure and water provisions impacting fire protection have long been an issue for Johnstown’s West Hills area.
The recommended water flow for a residential fire in Westmont is 1,000 gallons per minute, according to a 1992 study commissioned by the Greater Johnstown Water Authority to improve fire protection and system pressure.
The closest hydrant to the Oct. 19 fire was on Windan Lane, about 300 feet southeast of the burning house.
According to he GJWA’s resident manager, Michael Kerr, that hydrant sustains the minimum 25 psi while putting out about 400 gallons per minute.
“It is a weaker hydrant in the neighborhood as a result of the elevation,” Kerr said. “Twenty-five psi is the minimum we have to provide.”
Tapping into an additional hydrant connected to a separate main pipe, for example the hydrant in the middle of nearby Spear Avenue, could have provided the needed water flow, Kerr said. That hydrant is about 1,000 feet from the Windan Lane hydrant.
‘Water … flying out’
The Windan Lane hydrant provided no water on Oct. 19, however, according to West Hills Volunteer Fire Department Chief Rob Tauber.
The second hydrant used, at St. Clair Road and Stanford Avenue, is about 500 feet northwest of the house.
That hydrant also provided no water that night, Tauber said.
Kerr said the GJWA tested the hydrant the next day, and it flowed at 925 gallons per minute and sustained a pressure of 40 psi while flowing.
Over a Zoom interview with The Tribune-Democrat, Kerr showed a video recording of water gushing from the hydrant at Stanford during a test the day after the fire.
Theories from the GJWA and fire department differ on what happened at the hydrants used during that firefight.
Kerr said the problem must have been the result of firefighters’ error. Drawing water from more than one hydrant connected to the same water main at the same time could have weakened the supply, he said.
Both hydrants are connected to the same pipes underground. But even when tested simultaneously, water was available, though at lower pressure, Kerr said.
“I can’t recreate a scenario where there’s not water at those hydrants,” Kerr said. “I can go up there right now or in the middle of the night, open both of those hydrants up as wide as they can, and water will literally be flying out of those hydrants.”
‘Explain what happened’
Tauber said the error was not with firefighters’ actions.
He said a third hydrant had been used to fill a tanker at Boulder and Stanford avenues, and that hydrant is also connected to the same pipes as the other two. However, Tauber said, the Boulder-Stanford hydrant was running for only five minutes.
“We had lack of water for the whole fire,” he said. “Using the hydrant at Boulder for five minutes doesn’t explain what happened.”
The GJWA and the fire company have held one meeting since that fire, Tauber said.
The authority is updating flow tests of hydrants, and has also provided access to GIS maps showing where hydrants are located and what pipes they are connected to underground.
Tauber said there would be more meetings between the fire department and GJWA to mutually educate each other. He said the meetings would further the fire department’s knowledge of the GJWA’s system as well as further the GJWA’s knowledge of resources required during firefights.
However, no meetings have been scheduled yet because of COVID-19, he said.
Corey said she was grateful that the firefighters salvaged what they could from the house, but the confusion she saw still angers her.
“I think it is extremely cruel to put people who are volunteers in a situation where they have no water,” she said.
Incident echoes history
The same words were said more than 20 years ago.
Official minutes from Westmont Borough Council’s meetings from 1997 through 1999 give a glimpse of Councilor Suzanne Policicchio, now deceased, airing frustration with the GJWA.
In August 1997, Cambria County Judge Timothy P. Creany denied the GJWA’s objections to a lawsuit Westmont brought against it. Pleased that the suit was allowed to go to a hearing, Policicchio read into the minutes a quote from the judge’s opinion.
“Could anything be more cruelly deceptive than fire hydrants which do not function? Could there be greater lapse of care than to fail to properly inspect and maintain fire hydrants once they have been established and the community has accepted them as being live guardians and not mere painted cast iron?”
Creany borrowed that quote from a case that was litigated in Pittsburgh, against the South Pittsburgh Water Co.
With those words, Creany emphasize past court rulings that if an authority installs hydrants, it must maintain them in an appropriate manner.
“Likewise, in the (Westmont) case at hand, what is the purpose served by providing hydrants which have such a low water pressure that they could not put out the smallest of conflagrations?” Creany wrote.
The Oct. 19 fire brought the turbulent history of Westmont’s water system to the forefront again. But the GJWA said the incident in no way signals the persistence of old problems.
Through disputes as well as cooperation, much has changed over the past few decades to improve the system.
In the 1997 lawsuit, the Westmont Borough Council had sued the GJWA and its former management for deleting two pumps from the planned construction of the Viewmont pump house in the St. Clair neighborhood.
The pump house was a remedy for troubles identified in a 1992 report by fire protection engineer Dick A. Decker, whom the GJWA contracted to evaluate the extent of water pressure and flow problems in the borough.
Decker’s review found that much of the system operated below the minimum pressure required by state regulations.
The Westmont area’s water source is the Viewmont tank, located off St. Clair Road at Windan Lane. It was built more than 91 years ago by the former Johnstown Water Co. It stores 3 million gallons of water and is at ground level, rising about 15 feet on a slope and covered with earth and vegetation.
“Areas with high value, commercial and public buildings, and residential areas of Westmont Borough, Lower Yoder Township and Upper Yoder Township served by the Viewmont concrete tank west of St. Clair Road have very substandard protection,” Decker wrote.
The tank’s low elevation resulted in low water pressure to the area, Kerr said.
Decker proposed an additional elevated water tower beside the tank to provide more water volume and pressure. But that plan ignited opposition from residents.
Tower vs. pumps
Attorney Robert Brierton, a resident of Windan Lane, was a member of the neighborhood association that blocked the GJWA’s attempt to erect a water tower in 1993.
Brierton provided legal support for the group of about eight households, the St. Clair Neighborhood Association, that challenged the GJWA’s request for a zoning variance to construct the tower.
“We realized we are going to have a water tower in our backyards,” Brierton said. “All were in agreement that the water pressure was too low, but you don’t fix it with a tower in a residential area. You do it with pumps.”
The GJWA relented after the St. Clair Neighborhood Association fought the proposal for five years, up to the county court of common pleas, Brierton said.
The GJWA committed to building a pump house. However, it demanded the borough pay for two pumps, and the borough’s 1997 lawsuit followed.
The pump house was online in 1998, and residents were happy with increased water pressure, the borough council’s meeting minutes from that year show.
The borough subsequently dropped its lawsuit over additional pumps, with an agreement from the GJWA to provide two check valves for the system at its own expense, according to meeting minutes of the Westmont Borough Council.
Water to Ligonier
About nine years after the pump house was online, there were new plans in store.
For years, the GJWA’s water sales had been declining as Johnstown’s population dropped.
With a new management company, RDM, at the helm of the GJWA in the mid 2000s, plans were hatched to sell water to Ligonier Borough.
That plan resulted in a pipeline to Ligonier, new storage tanks in Upper Yoder Township and the addition of pumps at the Viewmont pump station.
The Ligonier interconnection line transports water from the two tanks in Upper Yoder Township to the top of Laurel Mountain and down to Ligonier Borough.
It was a $10 million project split between the GJWA paying $5 million and the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County paying $5 million, and has been profitable for both parties.
Under a 30-year contract effective 2013, the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County pays more than $230,000 to the GJWA each year based on the GJWA providing 520,000 gallons of water per day to Ligonier Borough at a price of $1.22 per 1,000 gallons, Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County business manager Brian Hohman said.
More than 1,600 customers in Ligonier receive water from the GJWA.
Prior to the connection, Ligonier Borough’s system was “extremely unreliable,” and heavily reliant on streams and wells, Hohman said.
“What this connection has done is provide Ligonier with a reliable water source,” he said. “GJWA’s reservoirs are pristine. We’ve had great service from them.”
Has pumping water to Ligonier diverted flow from the West Hills area? That was a question resident Greg Suppes asked after the October fire on St. Clair Road.
Suppes wrote a letter to the editor in The Tribune-Democrat after the fire. He lives a few hundred feet from the house that burned on St. Clair Road and even closer to the Viewmont pump station. Suppes said he can hear the pumps that were installed during the Ligonier project.
He wrote that the Viewmont pump station had worked fine and considered the Ligonier connection as a potential detriment.
“I wrote that letter because my parents were involved in the fight against the water tower in the ’80s or ’90s,” he said. “And that pump station (which was the favored alternative to the tower) seemed to solve the water problems. The only change has been the Ligonier connection.”
Speaking for the GJWA, Kerr said Suppes’ suggestion doesn’t hold water.
“The suggestion that the service in Westmont has been lessened in order to provide service over the mountain is 100% the other direction,” Kerr said. “The fire protection and domestic flow has been dramatically improved by the infrastructure that was installed to be able to send the water over the mountain.”
‘Steady … improvement’
The Viewmont station doesn’t send water directly to Ligonier; it pumps water to two storage tanks in Upper Yoder Township at the top of Shenkleview Drive. And those tanks were built not only to send water to Ligonier but also to improve water supply to the West Hills area.
The Upper Yoder tanks gravity-feed water back to the Viewmont neighborhood at the same pressure as the previous Viewmont pump configuration, Kerr said.
“We are pumping water farther away (from Viewmont) for the purposes of storage and water pressure (elevation is higher at the Upper Yoder tanks) but the volume of water that is stored and available is greatly increased specifically to Westmont and the Viewmont area,” he said.
In addition to the 3 million gallon Viewmont storage tank, the Upper Yoder tanks provide 1.2 million gallons of water storage. That should translate to hours of fire service under any circumstance, Kerr said.
And with the revenue from sales to Ligonier, the infrastructure pays for itself, he said.
“What’s been illustrated — from original in-ground tank to the addition of the Viewmont pump station, to the refit of the pump station and construction of the Upper Yoder tanks — is that there has been a steady progression and improvement in the fire flow through the years,” Kerr said.
Kerr said he couldn’t think of any reason for the hydrants at Windan Lane and Stanford Avenue to have failed during the Oct. 19 fire. The only possible scenario, he said, could be that firefighters tapped both hydrants at the same time, weakening the flow.
Answers ‘still unclear’
The 911 recording of the fire response captured voices of firefighters but doesn’t paint a clear picture of how the hydrants were used, except that the hydrant on Windan Lane was tapped first — then, the hydrant on Stanford.
“I have one hydrant that literally collapsed,” a firefighter can be heard saying on the recording.
“I got a second one that’s giving me very little water. I have no water for this fire.”
Chief Tauber said veteran firefighters were at all hydrants and used them correctly.
“I can’t pinpoint an error we made to cause the water shortage,” Tauber said. “And the GJWA couldn’t pinpoint a system malfunction. It’s still unclear.”
With more questions than answers, Corey and her parents are trying to move forward from their loss.
The morning of the fire, police offered the family a ride to a relative’s house while the flames consumed their home.
“We thought to ourselves: ‘We are going to lose the entire house and there is no water.’ It got to a point where we asked ourselves, ‘do you really just want to stand there all night and watch it?” she said. “We got into the cop car with the dog and went to my aunt’s house and sat there in shock.”
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