City, United Way Partner to Assist Realty Tower Residents

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The city has reached out to a structural engineer that it believes can begin a preliminary inspection of the Realty Building, a 12-floor downtown landmark that was partially destroyed by a deadly gas explosion last week.

“What we’re doing is bringing an engineer as a third independent party to look at the building to make sure the general public’s going to be safe,” Charles Shasho, deputy director of public works, said during a press conference Monday. 

Also, the city announced a partnership with United Way of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley intended to provide assistance to those affected by the disaster.

“We’re going to have United Way be our focal point to anyone who wants to contribute financially to all those who were impacted,” including displaced residents, workers or downtown businesses, Mayor Jamael Tito Brown said.

Concurrently, the city wants to initiate a preliminary evaluation of the damage so it can determine the next course of action.

Shasho said an assessment could determine whether streets or nearby businesses would remain closed and off limits and whether the building is in danger of collapse, posing a threat to the public. “We’re here only to facilitate an initial inspection,” he said, noting the city was not working on behalf of the building’s owner, Yo Properties 47 LLC. “A more detailed inspection will take place with other parties.”

Shasho clarified that the intent is not to determine the extent of the damage or what specific repairs need to be made, or whether the building would need to be torn down. “The owner needs to do that,” he said.

Securing the services of an engineer to tackle a task of this magnitude is difficult, Shasho said, adding many are reluctant to take on such a risky job. However, the city already has a relationship with an engineering firm that is working at 20 Federal Place and could potentially bring them on. Officials are expected to discuss the issue before the city’s Board of Control on Thursday.

Shasho said he had hoped to begin the assessment within the next 24 to 48 hours. “The biggest problem is the debris that’s in and around the site,” he said, noting the city needs to work with the entire project team and not disrupt investigations underway by the National Transportation and Safety Board or insurance investigators.

A natural gas explosion tore through the building at 2:44 p.m. May 28, killing 27-year-old Akil Drake – an employee of Chase Bank, which was located on the building’s ground floor.  Seven other people were injured from the blast. According to the latest report from Mercy Health, five have been treated and released, while two were still being treated and in stable condition.

The building also contained 23 apartments whose residents are now displaced, many of them wondering when – or even if – they’ll be able to collect their belongings and vital possessions.

Youngstown fire Chief Barry Finley was resolute that no one will enter the building unless it is deemed structurally sound. 

“What I’m going to wait on is the report from the structural engineer,” Finley said. Should the report determine that the building is safe to enter, firefighters will escort residents to collect some of their belongings. “If they say it’s not structurally sound for us to go back in, there’s nothing we can do about it because I will not put my firefighters or the community at risk.”

Damage to Realty Tower in downtown Youngstown is seen May 31.

There is no timetable as to when the inspection would be completed, officials said.

Finley said the DoubleTree by Hilton Youngstown Downtown and its ground floor restaurant, Bistro 1907, across the street remain closed. So, too, is a contiguous parking deck east of the hotel and a parking lot on the building’s north side.

An interlocking fence has been erected to restrict access to the blast site. Champion Street extending from Boardman to Federal Street remains closed, as is Market Street from Boardman to Federal.

Meanwhile, the city and the United Way of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley have mobilized an effort to provide assistance to all those impacted by the tragedy last week.

Brown said it’s more efficient to use the United Way as a single point of contact that could direct contributions to their intended recipients.

Bob Hannon, president of the United Way of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley, said his organization has received many calls from civic organizations that expressed their willingness to help those impacted by the tragedy.

“The mayor and I talked about this last Friday,” he said. United Way, he added, could accept donations intended for specific persons or businesses and ensure that any financial assistance is delivered. Second, the organization could provide a needs assessment to those impacted – from replacing a driver’s license to gift cards for groceries to financial hardship issues.

“We want to make sure we get help to the people who need it most,” he said.

Pictured at top: From left are Councilwoman Samantha Turner; Mayor Jamael Tito Brown; Bob Hannon, president of the United Way of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley; Charles Shasho, deputy director of public works; and Councilman Julius Oliver.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.