By LEIGH C. MERRIFIELD
News & Journal Editor
Pike Street in downtown Shinnston is typically non-stop traffic during daytime hours; however, last Thursday motorists were diverted through back streets and alleys due to a building collapse at 321 Pike Street, a structure that has been vacant and unoccupied for quite some time.
City Manager Amy Wilson said the City has been working toward cleaning up some of the community’s BAD (Brownfields, Abandoned, Dilapidated) buildings, and this is a prime example of why that effort is needed.
“We’ve been working with a team from WVU to get some of these buildings addressed. Their survey has included properties from the waterfront to High Street and from Charles Street to the old high school. We want to get some of these areas cleaned up and see some progress made toward that end. Unfortunately,” Mrs. Wilson said, “it is a situation like what transpired here last week that we have wanted to avoid.”
Mrs. Wilson said that Jim Beverly, the owner of what was The Infinite Grace Café, recently came to the city with concerns about his building sharing an adjacent wall with the unoccupied building next door. His fear was that if it had structural problems, it might disturb his building as well. That is exactly what occurred.
“The most recent owner of record of the abandoned structure (321 Pike Street) was an LLC and the name Mark Koski is registered,” Mrs. Wilson noted. “We also understand that a couple of people looked at the building but decided they didn’t have the funds to tear it down and restructure it for a better alternative. We have also ‘heard’ that the building may have gone to the State for taxes, in which case the State of West Virginia would actually be the owner. But because the need for public safety was an immediate issue, we had to step in and do something immediately as we were advised.”
The City first called the Shinnston Volunteer Fire Department for assistance; then a structural engineer at Thrasher was called to make an assessment. Their report declared that the building was a direct hazard to both health and safety. Wilson said that three demolition companies were contacted right away.
“We looked for a timely response, someone with demolition insurance, and someone who would give us a reasonable price. Salerno Brothers met all those requirements and were able to get started within the hour,” she added.
The City also notified the Department of Highways, and used the fire department and police to redirect traffic for the ensuing hours. All of this transpired from late morning until 8:30 – 9:00 p.m. on Thursday, January 19th. The structure was torn down but rubble still remains.
“We met with asbestos testers on Saturday and we are awaiting their report,” Mrs. Wilson continued. “We can’t pull anything off the site until that report is submitted. Then we will block the area again and try to reach the rubble from the back of these sites and pull everything out that way to avoid another traffic situation on Pike Street. Wesbanco has graciously granted us permission to access these sites from their property (drive-thru and parking lot behind the bank).”
When asked who is footing the bill at this time for demo, asbestos abatement, etc., Mrs. Wilson said that because it was an emergency situation that had to be taken care of at once, the City assumed the responsibility due to it being a matter of public safety.
“We have an emergency fund for issues such as this, and we will hash out the particulars later. We are continuing to research who is truly the property owner. We won’t know who is actually the responsible party until the legal process is started,” she stated.
Shinnston Volunteer Fire Department Deputy Chief Derek McIntyre said the structure was an ongoing situation. “It began to shift somewhat either on Tuesday evening or early Wednesday and then it progressed from there,” he said. “We heard from a few people who said they heard it on Wednesday as it began to fall. Thankfully both structures involved had no one on the premises or the situation could have been much worse.”
On Thursday 12-14 SVFD members were on site, along with 4-6 additional men from the Worthington VFD who offered mutual aid. All, including local police, helped with traffic control, securing the buildings and Pike Street.
“We notified utility companies, assisted the engineer from Thrasher and gave him access to the adjoining properties. Fortunately, we prepare for things like this – although we hope it is something we never have to witness. We have a plan to divert traffic just in case there is ever a major incident in our downtown area. That plan was implemented and it worked very well,” McIntyre stated.
McIntyre also noted that it was fortunate that it was not a bad day – no wind, rain, snow or ice. “Had there been weight of snow or ice on that rooftop, the building could have fallen forward instead of falling inward. Pedestrians on the sidewalk or passing motorists could have been injured.”
SVFD recommended that businesses on that block close for the day, and apartments above some of those businesses were evacuated as a precaution until demo was taken care of.
“Businesses on that block on the opposite side of Pike Street were also kept informed,” McIntyre added. “I’m sure it was an inconvenience for them, but everyone was understanding and followed our recommendations.”
Jim and Darlene Beverly are the owners of The Infinite Grace Café. They had just paid off the building and were planning to reopen.
“We were waiting until the building was paid for to cut down on overhead when we reopened,” Mrs. Beverly noted. “We had just put a new roof on our building as well! If you look at the front of our building from the street, you wouldn’t know how extensive the damage is, but it fell on top of our building and the roof and walls are all now lying on our floor.”
Mrs. Beverly said that they had complained about the vacant building next door, and there had been other issues they had faced as well such as the sewer system flooding their basement.
“We don’t think there is any way we will be able to rebuild from this,” she said, sadly. “I am trying to look at it as if it is just something that wasn’t meant to be, but we are seeking legal advice regarding who will be responsible for the damages we incurred.”
Vice-Mayor Pat Kovalck commented, “It is a shame that the café location was being prepared to be used again, and now because the adjacent vacant structure fell in their direction, it has demolished their building as well.”
Also an officer with SVFD, Vice-Mayor Kovalck explained, “I was informed by Chief Oliveto that morning that the situation on Pike Street posed a danger. We didn’t want to have to close down the main thoroughfare in our community, but because it involved a safety issue for pedestrians or passing vehicles, there was no choice. After the Thrasher Engineering specialist deemed it a threatening situation and we had that on paper, the City proceeded. This is what happens when BAD buildings are not addressed and they continue to worsen. They end up, as in this case, damaging other viable buildings nearby.”
SVFD Fire Chief Dylan Oliveto said that having a plan for emergency events was certainly a plus. “Of course, we plan for issues that involve fire but in this case, a proactive plan already in place was definitely helpful. Tractor trailer traffic and school buses were our main concern, but we were pleased with the job of keeping the flow through town. We would like to thank the drivers who were among the vehicles diverted for their understanding. They were very courteous and followed our directions. We appreciate their patience and cooperation,” he said.
Oliveto reiterated that the City leaders are pressing to move forward on vacant, dilapidated buildings. “Last week’s event was an eye opener as to how much this effort is needed, and our City government is working very hard at this; it takes time to make these changes,” he continued.
“SVFD has vowed to become more involved with our community and I am very proud that there is such a good working relationship between our city officials, public works, the fire department and police in Shinnston. It is a team effort and we are all aimed toward a common goal. Everyone needs to keep a positive attitude. Our volunteer firefighters were out there for 12 hours that day and I never heard one of them utter a complaint. Some citizens, I understand, are already grumbling about how long the mess will remain! I hope folks will realize that there are certain procedures that must be followed – one step at a time. But believe me, no one is more anxious to get it all cleared away than our City officials. Our community as a whole needs to keep a positive attitude,” Oliveto concluded.
City Manager Amy Wilson stated, “I will never be able to thank our volunteer fire department enough. They came to the City’s aid right from the beginning and never left the scene until the demo was complete and we knew it was structurally sound and wouldn’t fall onto the sidewalk. The situation was handled promptly and safely, but it was a sad day. A crowd gathered to witness the demolition and I overheard many people sharing stories of businesses that previously occupied that site. There were a lot of memories there.”
Wilson says the City is progressing on handling other BAD buildings as well. Asbestos testing came back negative on another property at 585 South Pike Street that has begun to fall. It has gone out to bid and work began on January 12 to take it down. She said the Ashby Apartments, also located in the downtown area, will be another that will need to addressed soon.
Mrs. Wilson was not available at press time to release further information on the asbestos reports on the 321 Pike Street structure or on how soon rubble clearance would take place.