Fire hits prison laundry

HOLLIDAYSBURG – A laundry room fire led to a prison lockdown Wednesday afternoon as firefighters worked their way through a smoky Blair County Prison outbuilding.

The fire, which jail employees first noticed between 3 and 4 p.m., filled Mulberry Street with an acrid haze, forced prisoners’ visiting relatives to leave and closed several Hollidaysburg streets to traffic.

No one appeared to be hurt in the blaze, firefighters said.

The flames began in a laundry room dryer after working prisoners had left the room, Warden Mike Johnston said.

“We were done for the

day,” he said.

An off-duty jail officer stopped by to pick something up, Johnston said, and noticed smoke emanating from the stone building that contains the laundry and a county garage. The officer told coworkers, who informed the warden, he said.

Workers rushed to drive the county vehicles from the garage in case the fire spread, Johnston said.

Guards locked down the prisoners’ cell blocks and canceled visiting hours.

“We saw a bunch of guards running back and forth,” said Melissa Thompson of Altoona, who was visiting her boyfriend when the fire started. “There was smoke just rolling out of the laundry building.”

Melissa Silverman of Philadelphia, also visiting an inmate Tuesday, said she drove four hours to Hollidaysburg only to have her visit cut short amid the emergency response.

“You could smell it when we walked out of visitation,” she said.

By 4:30 p.m., firefighters working outside the garage said the fire had been “knocked down.”

Thompson and Silverman, however, said they had seen flames periodically reignite as soon as they appeared to be contained.

Firefighters from Hollidaysburg, Logan and Allegheny townships, among others, encircled the building while sheriff’s deputies directed traffic from the nearby county parking garage. Neighbors and schoolchildren gathered, some taking photos with camera phones.

Johnston said he wasn’t certain what caused the apparent dryer fire, as the equipment would have been turned off by 3 p.m. A dryer may have simply remained too hot after closing, he said.

Firefighters on the scene said the fire didn’t appear to have been intentionally set.