Large fire burns downtown Pittsburg apartments

Jonathan Riley
Morning Sun
Residents were forced to evacuate after a large fire started Friday morning at the Smith Clinic apartments in downtown Pittsburg.

Note: This article has been updated.

PITTSBURG, Kan. — Firefighters from multiple agencies battled a large blaze in downtown Pittsburg Friday morning, the cause of which was still unclear several hours after the fire started. 

The fire at the Smith Clinic apartment building at the corner of 9th and Broadway apparently started at about 7:30 a.m.  

Pittsburg Fire Chief Dennis Reilly said later in the day that the fire department “had people here within a couple minutes.” He said no civilians or firefighting personnel were hurt in the fire, and also offered some information about how the fire started, although the exact cause remained unknown early Friday afternoon.  

“This particular building’s got multiple ceilings in it and then a roof, and then the fire was up in between those ceiling levels,” Reilly said.  

The Office of the State Fire Marshal is assisting with the investigation of the cause of the fire, Reilly said, adding that he expected to “probably have some idea toward the end of the day” about the cause of the fire, but could not provide a timeframe for the when the formal investigation would be completed. 

“It’s all based on the situation and how much they have to do, how much they have to dig, how much they have to peel back, so it’s very hard to say,” he said. 

At 11:26 a.m. Friday, City of Pittsburg Public Information Manager Sarah Runyon sent a text message to media saying Reilly had announced firefighters had “turned a corner” and had the fire under control. 

Neighbors reported hearing people yelling in the hallways as the fire started in the morning. 

“I could hear sirens but I didn’t think they were that close,” said Lisa Lowe, who lives next door above Computing Plus. “And then I smelt something burning.” 

Another man who did not want to give his name but said he lived across the hall from the apartment where the fire apparently started said he was alerted to the fire by someone yelling in the hallway. 

“I threw my clothes on real quick (…) I couldn’t find my keys, but I came downstairs and got my grandpa out and came outside,” he said. 

“All my stuff’s burning up,” he added. 

Besides the Pittsburg Fire Department, the Frontenac Fire Department and Baker Township Fire Department were also called in to assist with fighting the blaze. A total of at least 50 firefighters were likely involved, Reilly said.  

The Pittsburg Police Department also responded, but was mostly handling traffic control “to give these guys some room to work,” Pittsburg Deputy Police Chief Ben Henderson said. He added that the police department may also end up assisting with the investigation of the cause of the fire if it is determined to be suspicious. Crawford County Emergency Medical Services also responded to the fire, although no injuries were reported. 

“It looks like everybody got out safe, which is key,” said City Manager Daron Hall, who was at the scene of the fire Friday morning. “No way to start a morning,” he added. 

Pittsburg Director of Housing and Community Development Quentin Holmes, who also came to the scene of the fire, said probably only about half of the units in the Smith Clinic apartment complex were occupied prior to the fire. 

The building was suffering extensive smoke damage as a result of the fire, Holmes said, and “it would be a total renovation, most likely,” if it survives the blaze. 

“It’s unfortunate,” said Holmes. “It’s a great building in our downtown.” 

A few minutes later officials were also overheard saying the building appeared to be deteriorating. Later in the day, however, Fire Chief Reilly said he was optimistic that the building could be saved. 

“There’s significant damage inside the building from both the fire and water damage, but I’m very optimistic and hopeful that the building itself will survive,” Reilly said. “It’s one of these old historic buildings downtown that adds so much character to the city and in all honesty, you know, we worked as hard as we could, very aggressively, to try to save the building, because it is a significant piece of our history.” 

Reilly also said it was fortunate that the fire could be contained before it spread to surrounding buildings. 

“I would have to commend all the firefighters that were here, because this building could have easily been lost,” he said, “and these type of buildings, a lot of them have common attic spaces, so not only this building could have been lost but it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the entire block could have been lost, and the only reason why that didn’t happen was because of the hard work of the firefighters who engaged, so hats off.”