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Questions linger after Harrison fire

| Sunday, Jan. 13, 2013, 12:02 a.m.
Eric Felack, Valley News Dispatch
With bar stools stacked atop the bar at the temporarily closed business, Harrison's Bar and Grille manager Tracy Helgert on Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013, records an insurance inventory of food and beverages that were ruined in the fire in December 2012 at Heights Plaza Shopping Center in Harrison. Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
Valley News Dispatch
Firefighters from Citizens Hose in Harrison and Frazer remove a piece of the fire-damaged facade of Heights Plaza Shopping Center on Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012. Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch

Four weeks after a $10 million fire in Harrison last month, questions persist at the Heights Plaza Shopping Center.

Most of the damage was contained to the facade, but the Dec. 17 blaze destroyed the UPMC-Natrona Heights Multi-specialty offices in the former Macy‘s department store building.

Some businesses have reopened beneath the burned facade and twisted steel girders. But they likely will have to close at some point when a contractor replaces drywall, ceiling tiles and parts of the roof. The facade will be replaced at the sprawling center, original section of which — the section damaged — opened in 1955.

Plaza owner Steve Kogut of Indigo Management and Wild Blue Management did not return numerous calls for comment. But he has traveled from his New Jersey office to the plaza as recently as this week to talk with business owners, several said.

Disaster Restoration Services employees have been working behind chainlink fences at the plaza since last month. Signs point out that Dollar Bank, J&S Pizza and Kellie's Nails are still open.

On a rain-darkened Friday, neon signs flashed a welcome at Kellie's.

Two banks, two pizza shops and other companies have reopened, although the First Commonwealth Bank branch closed Saturday to do more fire-related maintenance, including replacement of two false ceilings.

The branch is scheduled to be open for regular hours on Monday.

Harrison's Bar and Grille, which received heavy smoke and water damage, and other businesses, including the Family Christian Stores bookstore and the Smoke Shoppe, are waiting for news from the management company and insurance companies.

“Everything is up in the air,” said Harrison's manager Tracy Helgert. “We're waiting for some direction” from the management company that owns the plaza.

“We need time frames when we can get things done and when we can reopen the doors. There's still smoke in the the walls and the ceiling. The roof and all the ceiling tiles need replaced, and we're just waiting.”

Helgert said she wonders what's in the smoke.

“We don't know if there was any asbestos or PCBs,” she said.

She knows that insurance companies are involved, and that it takes time to sort out the issues.

Helgert is worried customers won't return and some of the restaurant's 15 employees will find work elsewhere.

“We need to resolve this quickly,” Helgert said.

“We definitely want to reopen in the plaza,” said Family Christian Stores district manager Chris Cummings. “I'd love to say that we will be reopening by the first of February, but I can't say that.”

A sign on the door directs customers to the company's five other stores in the region.

Employees willing to work at the other stores have been offered hours, Cummings said.

At what used to be the Smoke Shoppe, a contact number is listed for customers.

“We're in a holding pattern, but he definitely wants to reopen at the plaza or at another location,” said Jim Carr, a friend of the shop's owner.

Carr said a Disaster Restoration Services manager told them they should wait to reopen until the drywall and other work can be completed.

“We've been doing a lot of preliminary work and demolition to see what damage was done,” said John Botti, who owns DRS' Monroeville office.

He said the company is accumulating reports and engineering analysis to help the plaza owners and insurance companies determine what needs to be done and prepare a schedule.

“We need a roof engineer to look at it, but the roof has been covered with snow for two weeks,” he said. “The engineer is scheduled for Tuesday.”

He confirmed that even open businesses will have to close fat some point or a short time, but can't yet determine when.

Accidental cause determined

Allegheny County Deputy Fire Marshal Gene Stouffer said the accidental electrical fire started in the facade and was pushed toward the UPMC offices.

Almost 300 firefighters from 30 companies were able to contain the damage largely to the shopping center‘s facade.

The fire caused extensive damage to the 10,000-square-foot medical offices, which included internal medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, arthritis, kidney care and other specialties. The plaza also housed UPMC's Heart and Vascular Institute.

UPMC ‘s free-standing urgent care center and rehabilitation services weren't impacted and some of the specialities moved into the center, said spokeswoman Susan Manko. Others moved to UPMC St. Margaret hospital. Medical records were in a fire-resistant area and have been moved.

A damage estimate wasn't available Friday. “We are still assessing that,” she said.

The hospital system and St. Margaret are “very committed to this community as evidenced by the year after year addition of new services and new physicians practicing in the area.

“We continue to work with the insurance companies on plans for a continued presence and service to the area,” Manko said.

Dollar Bank spokesman Joseph B. Smith said the branch was able to reopen Dec. 26.

Dollar Bank's facade burned and office equipment had to be replaced.

J&S Pizza reopened two days after the fire, said owner Debora Malvone, daughter of founder Vincenzo Malvone.

She is aware of the brief closing to come, but said no date has been announced.

“It could be three months from now,” she said.

Little Caesar's Pizza also reopened soon after the fire. Manager Jinger Wilkins said she has been told the store will have to close. “We have no idea when. But we're happy to be open,” she said.

Luna Vision reopened Jan. 7.

“Business has been slow. We don't know if people know yet that we are open,” said manager Tammy Redmond.

At some point the roof has to be replaced and the store will have to close for a few days.

Kellie's Nails opened last Tuesday.

“We're back to work,” said owner Kim Vo. She worried some customers would go to other salons if her store didn't reopen quickly.

State Farm Insurance agent Garrett Bogden had an office in the plaza until the fire, but has relocated to 1627 Freeport Road near the plaza.

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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