Post-fire work begins on Huntington National Bank Building in Youngstown

By EMMALEE C. TORISK | Metro Monthly Staff Writer

As restoration crews worked on the afternoon of July 12 to mitigate fire, smoke and water damage to the Huntington National Bank Building, Gary DiTullio, battalion chief at the Youngstown Fire Department, said the timing and extent of the previous evening’s two-alarm fire was “very fortunate.”

“It could’ve been a lot worse,” DiTullio said.

City firefighters arrived at the downtown Youngstown building just after 8 p.m. July 11. Bank security then led the fire crew to the mezzanine, where they observed the odor of smoke but no source, according to the YFD report. Upon return to the ground floor, they reported a large, wood-clad column in the bank lobby area on fire and extending to the ceiling.

“The fire was confined to one column,” DiTullio said.

Smoke had, however, traveled throughout the 13-story building, likely by way of the utility shaft space that “goes through the columns from floor to floor to floor,” said John O’Neill, the city’s fire chief.

Marcia Harris, the YFD’s chief inspector, said the construction of such an open column space isn’t a current building practice, but added that codes change at least every three years.

“It operates pretty much as a chute that would allow the smoke or flames to spread upward more rapidly,” Harris said. “That is our concern.”

Subsequently, each floor of a building constructed today would have “its own sectioned-off area,” with “no channel spaces from floor to floor,” O’Neill said.

But Harris explained that the YFD’s inspections of older buildings “are mainly to maintain them,” not to force their compliance with today’s fire codes — unless, for example, the building is undergoing major renovations.

“We can’t go back and have old buildings change to stay up with the code,” Harris said. “As it stands, in the way that it was built and for the purpose that it was built, then there’s no way you could go back and tell them, … ‘You gotta tear all that out or change it, because today’s codes don’t say that.”

In addition, an existing building is permitted to remain as it was built, “unless it imposes a serious hazard,” said Brenda Williams, the city’s chief building official.

And, at least to Harris, the century-old Huntington National Bank Building’s construction doesn’t necessarily pose such a hazard.

“[July 11’s electrical fire] was an accident that occurred,” she said. “That could happen anywhere, at any time.”

According to the YFD report, building maintenance reported that a breaker marked “pillar” had tripped, and firefighters noted electrical wiring at the base of the involved column. Damage to the building is estimated at more than $150,000, according to the YFD report.

The building “sustained minor damage” as a result of the fire, and customer accounts were unaffected, according to a Huntington National Bank statement; it reopened Friday, said William Eiler, a Huntington National Bank spokesman.

“Restoration crews were there immediately [after the fire],” Eiler said.

Carter Lewis, CEO of Lewis Construction, said restoration crews began arriving around 10 p.m. on July 11 “to get the tenants and the bank back open.”

The first objective, he said, was on emergency services and immediate needs of the bank. Subsequently, crews worked to remove heavy debris and water-damaged carpeting, and they also constructed a temporary wall to block off the damaged lobby area from the retail banking area.

Because of their emphasis strictly on target areas, 95 percent of the bank was “back to normal in three to five days,” Lewis said.

The entire restoration process should take around 30 to 45 days, he said, and it will involve “a lot of cleaning and painting throughout the building.”

The first-floor lobby features “plaster cornices, hand-carved columns [and] very ornate architectural details in the coffered ceilings [that] need to be restored,” he said.

Pat Fraser, owner of Mighty Ducts, said his air duct cleaning company was called on the morning of July 12. In subsequent days, his crews worked exclusively on the 11th and 12th floors.

“[It’s] all part of the puzzle of the cleanup process,” he said.

© 2012 The Metro Monthly. All rights reserved.

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