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Fire tears through Harrison shopping center

| Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012, 6:53 a.m.
Drums 'n More owner Tom Lukasic talks on his phone while his wife, Marlene (right), reacts as their business goes up in flames at the Heights Plaza Shopping Center in Harrison on Monday, Dec. 17, 2012. Erica Hilliard | Valley News Dispatch
A man runs past the scene of a massive structure fire at the Heights Plaza Shopping Center in Harrison on Monday, Dec. 17, 2012. Erica Hilliard | Valley News Dispatch
Firefighters struggled on Monday, Dec. 17, 2012, well past midnight at Heights Plaza Shopping Center to contain the blaze, which stretched from Harrison’s Bar & Grill on one side to the UPMC facility in the former Macy's storefront on the other. Erica Hilliard | Valley News Dispatch
Flames and smoke billow from the Heights Plaza Shopping Center in Harrison on Monday evening, Dec. 17, 2012. Erica Hilliard | Valley News Dispatch
Marlene Lukasic, wife of Drums 'n More owner Tom Lukasic, reacts as their business goes up in flames at the Heights Plaza Shopping Center in Harrison on Monday, Dec. 17, 2012. Erica Hilliard | Valley News Dispatch
Onlookers watch as flames and smoke billow from Heights Plaza Shopping Center in Harrison on Monday, Dec. 17, 2012. Erica Hilliard | Valley News Dispatch
Firefighters battle flames at the Heights Plaza Shopping Center in Harrison on Monday, Dec. 17, 2012. Erica Hilliard | Valley News Dispatch
Firefighters work the scene of a massive structure fire at the Heights Plaza Shopping Center in Harrison on Monday, Dec. 17, 2012. Erica Hilliard | Valley News Dispatch

Fire left a significant part of Heights Plaza in ruins on Monday night, destroying about a dozen businesses.

The blaze appeared to move through the strip mall's roof, spreading from an area above and near J&S Pizza. It spread toward Harrison's Bar & Grill on one side, and to the UPMC facility, located in the former Macy's department store, at the other.

The fire was reported at 9:40 p.m. Firefighters from across the area were fighting it past midnight. At 12:30 a.m. Tuesday, Allegheny County dispatchers said the fire still wasn't under control.

Hundreds gathered in the plaza parking lot to watch, standing in the rain.

No injuries were reported, according to Allegheny County 911.

Officials at the scene, including the Allegheny County Fire Marshal's office, were not available for comment. There was no immediate word on exactly where or how the fire started, but several witnesses pointed to a vacant storefront under renovation next to J&S Pizza.

The plaza is more than a shopping center for some residents, who have enjoyed Christmas and Halloween parades and other events there.

“This is a landmark. This is a part of our life,” said Clark Shoemaker of Harrison, who was eating in Harrison's when the fire broke out. “There's a lot of memories here.”

Valerie Smith and Danyell Devich, both of Freeport, may have been the first ones to spot the fire.

They said they had left J&S Pizza after a business meeting and were talking in the parking lot when they saw what first looked like a Christmas light in a hole in the front facade of the building near the pizza shop.

It was located between J&S Pizza and an empty storefront, a former gift shop that several people said was being worked on for a new business, a sleep study center.

The light the women saw became a flame.

Smith said they went inside and told workers in J&S what they saw, then ran down to Harrison's and told the bartender that the roof was on fire. Flames were leaping from the roof within minutes.

“It just went up real fast,” Smith said. “Fortunately, most of the businesses were closed.”

J&S employee Gino Pugliese said they were getting ready to shut down for the night when the women told them what they saw.

“We all just got out,” he said.

Before the alert, Shoemaker said he was watching Monday Night Football when he smelled smoke in Harrison's. He said he walked around the restaurant but saw nothing amiss and figured the odor was just coming from the night air.

“I didn't see anything. I didn't see nothing going on,” he said.

Rich Siefert has owned Harrison's in the plaza for 3½ years. He was sitting at the bar when he, too, smelled smoke.

“The plaza is basically destroyed from here down,” he said.

The extent of damage to the restaurant was unclear, Siefert said. There were no sprinklers in his restaurant.

“The flames didn't get it but sometimes smoke and water can be worse,” he said, looking at the storefront from the parking lot, the lights still on long into the fire. “We're like the Titanic. The TVs are still on.”

The full extent of the damage was unclear Monday night. Parts of the roof were believed to have collapsed, along with part of the front facade at UPMC. Thick, heavy smoke obscured parts of the building from view.

Businesses apparently affected included Harrison's, Dollar Bank, Drums 'n More, J&S Pizza, Luna Vision, Cash for Gold, Kellie's Nails, State Farm Insurance, Superior Smoke Shoppes and UPMC Natrona Heights Multispecialty.

Marlene Lukasik wailed as the fire raged over her family's music store, Drums 'n More. They had closed about an hour before the fire broke out.

“I just can't believe this,” said her husband, Tom Lukasik, of Natrona Heights. They've owned their business for about 2½ years.

“Everything is just on fire,” he said. “Everything was fine when we left, though.”

“I'm just looking at all my merchandise in the store. This was the last thing I ever expected to happen in this plaza,” he said. “It's Christmastime. All my Christmas stock is in there.”

“I'm devastated — for us, for J&S, for every business in here. It's a devastating loss,” said Jessica Mirso, an instructor at Drums 'n More. “I don't know how something like this could happen.”

Brian C. Rittmeyer is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4701 or brittmeyer@tribweb.com.

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