Fire at MarkWest sparks evacuation

May 28, 2014
Residents on and near Western Avenue gather at the Chartiers Township Fire Department social hall after evacuating their homes. A fire at the MarkWest plant was quickly extinguished, but nearby homes were evacuated for safety precautions. - Katie Roupe / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

Huddled in the social hall at the Chartiers Township Fire Department, Houston residents exchanged stories and what little information was made available after they evacuated their homes following an incident at a MarkWest Energy plant Wednesday.

Some residents said they witnessed a lightning bolt strike the plant, sending a resonating boom, a burst of light and spray of steam or vapors into the air.

“I saw it hit. Then there was this big, loud, hissing noise,” Linda Cumer, who lives along McConnells Mills Road, said. “Then something started spewing into the air out around the tanks on the hill.”

A short while later, Cumer said she got a call from her sister-in-law instructing her to evacuate. As she walked outside, Cumer said she could smell a heavy scent of gas.

Many area residents seeking refugee Wednesday had similar stories. They were either told to leave their homes by police or fire officials, family members or neighbors. Many simply stopped what they were doing, got in their car and came to the fire department at 2450 W. Pike St.

“A cop came to our door and told us to gather a few things, leave our pets and go,” Eileen Multunas, who also lives along McConnells Mills, said. “There was a lot of smoke.”

All homes within two miles of the MarkWest Energy plant in Houston were evacuated as a safety precaution after a brief fire released propane gas into the air, Washington County Commissioner Harlan Shober said. Shober emphasized the evacuation was enacted as a safety precaution.

“(Air quality) monitors have been set up,” he said. “MarkWest is monitoring the situation.”

The Washington County hazardous materials team, local police and fire departments and MarkWest employees were on scene.

Dave Crawford, a human resource manager with MarkWest, was stationed at the fire department to disseminate information to the public.

Crawford confirmed a lightning strike caused a small fire about 6 p.m. He said no one was injured.

“We are going to do everything we can to get you back into your homes tonight,” Crawford said as he addressed the 50 or so people gathered in the hall. “I will keep you updated.”

Robert McHale, a spokesman for MarkWest, did not return calls for comment.

To accommodate the restless crowd, Chartiers Township Supervisor John Marcischak said he would take the mobile phone numbers of residents and contact them with updates regarding the evacuation.

Mt. Pleasant Township Fire Department was also set up as a staging station, but about 8:30 p.m., officials reported no one was there.

Shawn Sethman, who lives along Western Avenue, directly across from the plant, said this was “only a matter of time.” He and other residents were unhappy with the evacuation process.

He said he’s requested an evacuation plan from MarkWest in the past and his request was denied because of security purposes.

“I live within hundreds of feet, and I don’t know how we are to evacuate,” he said. “Needless to say, I’m not happy.”

Crawford said American Red Cross representatives were notified and they would assist with temporary housing and other needs. Crawford said hotel rooms would be provided if residents were not permitted to re-enter their homes Wednesday.

However, shortly before 10 p.m., area residents were told they were allowed to return to their homes several hours after the evacuation order.

Francesca Sacco joined the Observer-Reporter as a staff writer in November 2013, and covers the Washington County Courthouse and education. Prior to working with the Observer-Reporter, Francesca was a staff writer with a Gannett paper in Ohio. She graduated from Point Park University with a dual bachelor’s degree in print and broadcast journalism.

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