Rewinding a mass rescue at Realty Tower (2024)

Rewinding a mass rescue at Realty Tower (1)

Staff photos / Ed RunyanThis photo was taken from an upper floor of a building across the street from the Realty Tower showing firefighters and others along East Federal Street pulling victims from the basem*nt and first floor of the building May 28.

YOUNGSTOWN — The phone calls and 911 audio from the May 28 Realty Tower explosion help tell the story of 90 minutes of life-saving rescues, concerns about another explosion, evacuations and information sharing.

They make it clear that a firetruck from the downtown fire station, just up the street from the Realty Tower, was dispatched to the building at 2:46 p.m. for someone who pulled a fire alarm in the building and a report of a “gas leak, unknown apartment.”

Capt. Tommy Gibbs and his Ladder 22 truck had just left the fire station and drove 15 seconds toward the Realty Tower when a dispatcher stated that the Youngstown Police Department “just called up and said that’s a gas explosion.”

Gibbs responded over the radio 20 seconds after that to have more firefighters called out, saying “I see a lot of smoke.” A dispatcher then could be heard calling out additional fire battalions and vehicles.

Gibbs reported being at the scene a couple of minutes later and reported, “It’s going to be the old Chase building. I see one person, no active fires.”

Fire department battalion Chief Tim Frease, commander of the scene, left the fire station seconds behind the firetruck and was at the Realty Tower just seconds after the firetruck. Less than a minute later, he advised: “We need multiple ambulances at this location. We got victims, sublevel trapped.”

Fire Chief Barry Finley advised less than a minute later, he was “on my way downtown.”

Then a call went out to “all fire companies, all ladders, respond to 47 Central Square for a gas explosion, multiple victims.”

A firefighter at the scene at 2:49 p.m., about two minutes after the first truck arrived, stated, “We have reports of multiple people trapped in the basem*nt.”

At 2:53 p.m., a call came in about the natural gas in the building, with a firefighter saying there was a “high flow, we got people trapped in the basem*nt. We can’t get to them until we get the gas turned off.” The dispatcher stated, “Dominion has been notified.”

That decision was reversed at some point because body camera video from Mahoning County Sheriff’s deputy Joe Hamilton indicates that people were being rescued from the basem*nt of the building by about 2:50 p.m. Those operations appear to have continued until all six Chase Bank employees the fire department knew about were out of the building.

Frease told The Vindicator that he evaluated the building and determined that it was likely to hold up long enough for firefighters to rescue the Chase workers and that the condition of the building was not likely to get any better. There was still natural gas coming into the basem*nt, as well as water from a water pipe.

The explosion not only caused much of the first floor to fall into the basem*nt, but it also destroyed much of the exterior walls of the first floor.

“Sometimes it’s better to take that immediate risk rather than try to wait if you don’t believe the conditions are going to get better. There’s only one thing you can do in that situation — the rescue,” Frease said.

The last rescue was completed about 22 minutes after the initial call — about 3:06 p.m. The last of the apartment residents on the floors above the bank were cleared from the building 45 minutes after the initial call — about 3:30 p.m. — Frease said.

At 2:54 p.m., a radio call indicated that the gas company, now called Enbridge, was 15 minutes out from arriving. At 2:56 p.m., Frease stated over the radio that “the rest of the trucks in the city” were needed, as well as the “ladder truck from Boardman.” That truck was on its way at 3:02 p.m.

At 3:06 p.m., Frease made the first radio call regarding the need to have FirstEnergy cut the electricity to the building.

At 3:15 p.m. a dispatcher advised that there are elderly residents in two apartments toward the top of the building “who are unable to get themselves evacuated.”

At 3:15 p.m., a radio call indicated that “The (Youngstown) Water Department is being contacted, Ohio Edison is being contacted.”

At 3:16 p.m., a call indicated that alarms had come in for the International Towers, the apartment building next door to the Realty Tower.

At 3:16 p.m., a firefighter said the seventh floor of the Realty Tower was “cleared” of people. Finley arrived at the Realty Tower at 3:18 p.m.

Starting about 4 p.m., personnel and vehicles started to return to their stations. Gibbs and his ladder truck returned to the downtown fire station at 4:09 p.m.

At 4:25 p.m., there was water again flowing into the basem*nt of the Realty Tower and the Youngstown Water Department was “trying to find out where they needed to turn it off from,” a dispatcher said.


Frease told The Vindicator that about 75 minutes after the Realty Tower explosion, they learned that a seventh employee, Akil Drake, 27, had been in the building at the time of the explosion.

“We got a roster from the bank with six names on it, and we accounted for those six people early on,” Frease said. “About an hour, an hour and 20, an hour and a half in, they came back to us and said there was a seventh (employee) there.”

Drake was reportedly at the bank branch for a meeting, fire Capt. Shawn Murray said.

“But he wasn’t accounted for on the roster. They have a roster for the employees who are on the clock. He was there as an employee, but he wasn’t part of that roster,” Frease said.

The Youngstown Police Department detective division was called in to assist with the investigation of the explosion. One of their determinations was that Drake was at work.

“There were no customers in the bank at the time,” Frease said of the time of the explosion.

“By the grace of God,” Murray added.

Drake’s body was found in the basem*nt of the building by Youngstown firefighters about 12:30 a.m. May 29, Finley said. Drake’s funeral is today in Pittsburgh.

Among the phone calls provided to The Vindicator were two made by a Chase Bank official in Columbus to the Youngstown 911 center — one at 3:38 p.m. May 28 and one at 3:42 p.m. The man talked to two dispatchers and was trying to account for the Chase employees.

A preliminary Youngstown police report on the explosion stated that two fire investigators, R. Todd Stitt of the Ohio State Fire Marshal’s Office, and Charles Hodge, chief fire investigator for the Youngstown Fire Department, spoke to Samantha Black, business relationship manager at JP Morgan Chase Bank, at the scene.

Black, who the report said was “present during the incident,” said she “smelled a strong odor of natural gas during her shift and was upset that an unknown company was in the basem*nt” of the building “moving appliances.” Black also told Stitt and Hodge that the unknown workers smelled natural gas but “did not alert others who occupied the structure.”

Thomas Chapman, a board member of the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the explosion, said at a press conference three days after the explosion, “No gas was smelled during the day as the crew was working in the basem*nt. This indicated that there was no ongoing leak through the day.”

Chapman also said the crew working in the basem*nt “evacuated the basem*nt, alerted the bank employees upstairs and pulled the fire alarm. We understand that at least one of the workers called 911. The workers were instrumental in alerting the residents of the upstairs apartments and they assisted to evacuate residents.”

The 911 calls and a video from an upper floor of the Realty Tower indicated that a fire alarm was going off in the minutes before the explosion.


As for police officers, the preliminary Youngstown police report lists about 70 Youngstown officers, detectives and other personnel having responded to the emergency. A large number of them reportedly kept the public away from the Realty Tower and other nearby buildings in case the Realty Tower collapsed.

Many Youngstown officers, as well as sheriff’s deputies and others, evacuated most of the buildings along Market Street, East Federal Street and Wick Avenue downtown.

The first radio traffic involving police officers at the Realty Tower was at 2:46 p.m. when an officer made a brief call to dispatch, and a dispatcher said “Any cars available for traffic? We had a gas explosion at 47 Central Square. They believe there may be people inside.”

At 2:49 p.m., a police officer reported “There were people in the bank. We’ve got some coming out now.”

About 20 seconds later, a police officer said “Let’s get some cars and shut down the Market Street Bridge, and get all of the bridges downtown shut down.”

In the minutes that followed, Market Street was shut down at Front Street, and officers started moving the public away from the front of the Realty Tower.

Market Street was shut down at Woodland Avenue and Front Street as of about 2:58 p.m., as well as South Avenue at Front Street, to prevent traffic from entering the downtown area, an officer advised.

At 3:01 p.m., an officer advised a dispatcher to “Go ahead and shut down the courthouse.” A voice said the county courthouse was being evacuated as of 3:02 p.m., and other officers could address the other courthouses.

At 3:02 p.m. an officer advised dispatchers to have officers in the area evacuate the International Towers next to the Realty Tower.

Enbridge, the natural gas company, arrived at Market and Front streets at 3:07 p.m., an officer reported, seeking guidance on where Enbridge employees should be taken.

“We have a gas leak. Send them all the way through,” an officer was advised, apparently by a firefighter.

At 3:08 p.m., an officer asked for dispatch to ask the Youngstown Street Department to bring its “big salt trucks to start blocking off the roads.”

The gas company arrived at the Realty Tower at 3:14 p.m. At 3:18 p.m., an officer said all of the sidewalks along Market Street down to the county courthouse needed to be cleared of people.

At 3:22 p.m., an officer asked for help evacuating the Huntington Bank Building across Central Square from the International Towers. An officer indicated at 3:35 p.m. that all of the buildings surrounding the Realty Tower had been evacuated.

At 3:36 p.m., someone advised that all of the natural gas to “this entire block (that includes the Realty Tower) has been shut off.”

At 3:43 p.m., a drone and drone personnel were standing by near the Realty Tower. Sheriff Jerry Greene later said a drone from his office was flown into the building to provide information as to what parts of the building were stable enough to work in.

At 3:43 p.m., the National City Bank at the corner of West Federal Street and Wick Avenue across the intersection from the Realty Tower had been evacuated, a dispatcher was advised.

At 4:29 p.m., someone asked dispatch to call Ohio Edison. “We still have power inside this building. We need it all cut off,” he said.

At 5:05 p.m., someone said, “We have a 20-minute (estimated time of arrival) for Ohio Edison.”

Have an interesting story? Contact Ed Runyan by email at Follow us on X, formerly Twitter, @TribToday.

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Rewinding a mass rescue at Realty Tower (2024)
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