Moments after he realized the STORExpress building in Etna was ablaze, Ross Godber’s only thought was to try to save the cars.
Godber, 42, of Indiana Township was working on a rare Bentley at his business, Victory Garage, which rents space inside the building. He was on the ground beneath the 1997 Bentley Continental T on Wednesday afternoon when he heard a series of loud, machine gun-like bangs.
“Like the loudest gun I’ve ever heard,” he said.
Then black smoke was rolling toward him.
“Forty feet from me, there was just pure fire and black smoke,” Godber said.
But instead of running to safety, Godber got behind the wheel of a 2011 Ferrari California and drove it outside.
“I really think I’m lucky to be alive,” Godber told the Tribune-Review on Thursday.
The massive blaze at the STORExpress facility remains under investigation by the Allegheny County Fire Marshal’s Office.
Matt Brown, chief of the county’s Department of Emergency Services, said the fire started in a garage bay in the first floor of the 110,000-square-foot building that fills a large block on Butler Street. A man was working on a motorcycle when it caught fire, Brown told the Tribune-Review.
Firefighters were called to the former Tippin Inc. mill at 400 Butler St. just off Route 28 about 2:20 p.m. Heavy smoke and flames could be seen coming from the warehouse. Nearby homes and businesses were evacuated.
Brown said there were reported issues with the sprinkler system in the building.
Steve Mitnick, owner of STORExpress, said the company contracts with others for its sprinkler system. He thought it was operational.
“It’s not a problem until you have a fire,” Mitnick said.
STORExpress has owned the building since 2012. The company owns 13 storage facilities in the region. The Etna building was home to several small businesses, including Godber’s, and was used to store exotic sports cars, classics and recreational vehicles worth millions.
Mitnick was out of town during the fire and hadn’t yet surveyed the scene as he was driving from Florida.
“We are still trying to get the extent of the damage,” he said. “We have a lot of hope, and we’re trying to work with our clients to make them whole.”
Because people come and go, there’s no way of knowing the exact number of vehicles in the building, Mitnick said.
Building, car owners insured
The building was insured, and most of the people who stored items there also carried insurance. The storage agreement stipulates people must carry insurance, Mitnick said.
The fire is a shame because the idea behind the facility is it’s supposed to be a safe place for people to store something valuable like a classic car, Mitnick said.
Then, “something like this happens.”
He said the building wasn’t completely destroyed, and the company intends to repair the building and continue to operate. He felt bad for the small-business owners who rent work space there.
“We’re trying to do everything we can to help them,” Mitnick said.
Godber, who has rented space inside the building for five years, said there were several rare and collectible cars stored there. They included a 1920s-era Bugatti race car that was valued at more than $2 million. There were also several Ferraris, Bentleys, Jaguars and classic hot rods.
“I’m pretty certain that 90 percent of it is going to be a total loss,” Godber said. “It was scary.”
He was going to try to rescue the Bentley he was working on, but the fire and smoke made that impossible.
“It was a pretty car,” Godber said of the rare luxury sedan that he’s certain burned in the fire.
Godber said there was no warning.
“I knew about it when it was almost on me,” Godber said. “I’ve got a family and stuff. I’m glad I got out of there.”
Ruth Duerstein of Etna had just removed her Mazda Miata convertible from storage two weeks ago.
“It’s unfortunate this happened,” Duerstein said. “When I would go in to park my car, I always made a point to walk around to look and see. There were antique cars. It was just an experience to walk around and see all the vehicles that were there.”
Karen Gerard lives in Shaler and was among the first people to rent a spot in the building when it opened. She stored a recreational vehicle there and had just returned it to storage after a vacation.
“Bad timing,” Gerard said.
Shawn Miller of Ross operates a reptile education business, Lab Ratz, inside the building.
He was leaving at 2:20 p.m. Wednesday to do a program at Franklin Regional and noticed the pitch-black smoke in the building.
He left without realizing the extent of the fire.
When he got outside, he could see a “wall of smoke just pouring out of the garage.”
His business is on a far corner, and he didn’t yet know the extend of damage done to his area or if the snakes, turtles and a lizard survived.
“I’m just holding out hope that my area was somehow salvaged,” Miller said.
Etna police Chief Tim Rodman said until the fire investigation is completed and a structural engineer determines the building is safe, people will not be allowed inside.
An engineer will inspect the building Friday morning, Mitnick said.
Depending on how that inspection goes, he said the hope is to be able to get inside the building and allow people to recover what they can.
Tom Davidson is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tom at 724-226-4715, [email protected] or via Twitter .