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Fast-moving fire torches home in Tarentum

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By Chuck Biedka

Published: Friday, Dec. 14, 2012, 9:40 a.m.

Fast-moving flames forced three people to flee their Tarentum home just before 9 a.m. Friday, but the family dog apparently died.

Michael Polly, his wife, Laura, and his 17-year-old grandson were inside when smoke suddenly filled the house at 601 E. Ninth St. All three escaped the flames.

Ken Misejka, a Tarentum Borough employee, was driving by when he saw smoke pouring from the basement door. He reported the fire to 911, then saw Michael Polly going back into the house.

“He said he was trying to find his dog. I got as far as the kitchen with him and we stopped,” Misejka said. “The smoke was too bad, and I had to take him outside. He didn't want to go.

“I love pets, too, but they can be replaced. A man can't,” Misejka said.

“Kenny is a hero. If he wasn't there, a man might not have left the house,” said borough code enforcement officer Tim Dzugan.

“Yes. He probably saved a life,” said borough police Sgt. James Newcomer.

As Newcomer was speaking, flames exploded through windows overlooking Wills Alley and shot out almost into the alley 30 feet away. Columns of thick smoke roiled above the 2½-story frame house.

As intense heat rose in the house, melted vinyl siding slid to the ground.

While flames were destroying their home, the Polly couple and their grandson found refuge in next-door neighbor Jim O'Donnell's house.

The couple's 10-year-old twins, who also live with them, were at school at the time.

“Please keep us in your prayers,” Michael Polly asked.

He said he went back inside the house to find Thor, a dachshund. “He probably went under the couch,” he said.

Later, Polly was taken to a hospital for treatment of smoke inhalation.

Throughout the morning, neighbors and friends brought coats and other items to help the family on the sunny but seasonally cold morning.

The Salvation Army mobile kitchen fed fire and rescue crews while Laura Polly met with Red Cross disaster aid officials.A family friend is trying to establish a relief effort for the Pollys.

The Polly family is very active with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, said the Rev. Aaron Kriss, pastor of Holy Martyrs Roman Catholic Church in Tarentum, which the Polly family attends. Among other things, the society helps homeless people.

“Now they're homeless,” said friend Matt Struhar.

Highland Hose Chief Terry Chambon said it took hours to put out the stubborn blaze because of the way the house was built.

“This house is balloon construction and the fire went from the basement to the attic,” he said. “We had to contend with fire in the basement and the attic and roof at the same time.”

Balloon construction means that the outside walls of a structure are continuous from the bottom to the top of the house, allowing fire to race inside a wall through the entire height of the structure.

In standard construction, walls stop at each floor level, creating a barrier that slows the spread of flames.

Chambon said Allegheny County Chief Deputy Fire Marshal Don Brucker and another deputy are investigating the blaze.

“With this construction, the fire went from the basement to the wall and all the way up to the attic and the roof,” Brucker said. “The firefighters did a good job.”

Chuck Biedka is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4711 or cbiedka@tribweb.com.

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