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Don’t enter Realty Tower to help tenants, firefighters told

YOUNGSTOWN — The city’s firefighters union’s executive board advised its members not to go into Realty Tower, which will be demolished shortly, to retrieve some of the belongings of the downtown building’s former tenants because of various dangers.

Separate emails from the executive board to its members and to fire Chief Barry Finley said it was surprised to learn July 3 from the press that Finley had offered to have firefighters go into Realty, heavily damaged in a May 28 gas explosion, today to help get some small items for tenants in the building’s 23 apartments.

In the email to Finley, the executive board wrote that the union “believes entrance into the Realty Tower building poses a significant threat to the life and safety of Local 312 members, and as such, we have advised the members against entry into the building.”

It added: “Following the explosion, engineering experts declared that the building was not structurally stable. Since that time, no attempt to stabilize the building has taken place. It has been left for over a month to endure the powerful force of gravity with the interior of the building and collapsed basement exposed in the elements. Realty Tower is likely more unstable now than it has ever been. Crews of firefighters and equipment carrying out bags of luggage could be all it takes for a partial interior or even global collapse of the remaining structure. There are 1,000-pound pieces of concrete in that wreckage that are dangling from 1-inch rebar. If one of those pieces falls it will kill a firefighter the same as it would anyone else. Airborne asbestos particles have also been identified inside the structure along with all the other known carcinogens that become airborne when a building collapse occurs.”

The union has frequently clashed with Finley – and that was mentioned in the email to the chief.

“That you would ask Local 312 members to make entry into Realty Tower without even discussing your plans with the members’ representatives is dangerous itself,” the email reads.

Attempts on Tuesday to contact Finley for a response were unsuccessful.

The letter to Finley states: “By soliciting our members to volunteer for this task when they are off duty, the city and property owner would assume no liability for them and all the risks associated with this work would be shifted to the firefighters themselves. They will not be eligible for workers’ compensation if injured, line of duty death benefits if killed or disability benefits if they are diagnosed with a related illness down the road.”

The email states the firefighters showed their commitment to those in danger by rushing into the building right after the explosion — resulting in the death of a person and several injuries — shows “our commitment” so “asking our members to place their lives at risk in that building again, six weeks later, for anything other than to save a life is unconscionable.”

In the email to the union membership, the executive board pointed out the various dangers at the building.

“Our board strongly advises against asking entry into the Realty Tower building, in its present condition, except for life-saving emergency responses,” that email reads.

The dangers, the email states, include the building is “in imminent danger of collapse. There is also tons of dangerous debris to navigate floor by floor, making immediate egress almost impossible. Sending firefighters in there with gear, equipment and suitcases, sifting through debris, can shift an unstable building at any second. Nothing has been done to stabilize the structure as of the writing of this email.”

It also included a number of the points raised in the email to Finley.

The email to the firefighters concluded with: “We ask that members stand with us and support the stance taken. Our brothers’ and sisters’ lives on or off duty depend on it. Stay safe, stay strong and united.”

Firefighters were supposedly going to go into the building, starting today, to retrieve some personal belongings of the tenants that will fit in a “small standard size carry-on suitcase” with dimensions of 22 inches by 14 inches by 9 inches, according to a July 2 email from Live Youngstown Property Management LLC, which manages the building on behalf of YO Properties 47 LLC, Realty’s owner.

Tracey Winbush, a Realty tenant who had to immediately vacate when the May 28 explosion occurred, said she understands why firefighters wouldn’t want to go into the heavily damaged building.

“I’d like to have a little bit of my stuff back, but most importantly, I’m still here,” she said Tuesday. “I’m alive with all of my 10 fingers and 10 toes connected to me and no pain connected to it.”

Late Tuesday, Winbush said she received an email from Realty officials that firefighters would be inside the building today and the items tenants selected would be sent down through a pulley system.

Winbush said tenants should have the opportunity to go in and retrieve valuables and important items.

“I can’t do anything to change it,” she said. “But they should give us that option. I’ll sign a waiver. Other people have been in there.”

Asked for a comment on the demolition permit process and the demolition time line Tuesday, YO Properties 47 and LY Property didn’t give answers.

Instead, it issued a lengthy statement about being “consumed with work: the work of traversing the uncharted path of an explosion’s wake, the work of finding solutions for the lives adversely impacted by the explosion of May 28. We never intended to be in a position of watching our beloved Realty Tower be demolished. We never intended to be the subject of ridicule, salacious and unfounded accusations and insulted by community members who we’ve often worked alongside in this city.”

It added: “Our city can no longer be held hostage by unnecessary opinions, baseless ideas and endless chatter. Time must be spent on a cure, which can only be found on an immediate path forward.”

The statement took a shot at a Monday roundtable, closed to the media and public, of city stakeholders put together by U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Cleveland.

The two companies said they were excluded from that meeting and they are “actively working to schedule a roundtable discussion with true stakeholders of downtown as we remain committed to action and having the courage to take the hard steps forward.”

In a Friday statement, YO and LY wrote: “Our priorities are reflected in the demolition time line proposed to the city. The time line outlines the retrieval of Realty Tower tenants’ possessions as mid-next week with demolition beginning shortly thereafter, or the week of July 15.”

Demolition was expected to start as soon as Thursday, the day after firefighters were supposed to retrieve some items for the tenants.

A Mahoning County Building Department employee said Tuesday that the Realty demolition proposal remains incomplete after a partial request was submitted Friday.

There has been numerous communications between Realty owners, Modarelli Excavating — which will do the demolition — the county and the city, the building department employee said.

But additional paperwork is needed from Realty and a letter from the city before demolition could begin, she said.

Mayor Jamael Tito Brown on June 24 gave YO Properties 47 until last Friday to take the steps to demolish the building or the city would take legal action.

The building on East Federal Street sustained extensive damage in the May 28 explosion, destroying much of the first floor, which was a Chase Bank branch. An employee of the bank, Akil Drake, was killed in the blast.

A June 14 preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board, which is leading the investigation, stated a four-person scrap-removal crew, engaged by GreenHeart Companies of Boardman — owned by Brian Angelili, YO Properties 47’s managing member — was working in a basement area underneath the building’s sidewalk removing old utility lines when a crew member sawed three times into a pipe mistakenly believing it to not have natural gas in it. That caused the explosion.

Also, the Stambaugh Building, which is the location of the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel, has been closed since May 28. International Towers, which houses about 170 people, was evacuated June 14 after a structural engineering report four days earlier stated all buildings within a 210-foot radius of Realty had to be closed as they’re in a “collapse zone.”

Numerous downtown stakeholders say they want to save the building. But YO and LY say the advice of five structural engineers is that the building could be stabilized for about $750,000, but its longevity could not be guaranteed or insured.

Have an interesting story? Contact David Skolnick by email at dskolnick@vindy.com. Follow him on X, formerly Twitter, @dskolnick.

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