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Vandergrift garage reopens after September arson

| Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013, 12:46 a.m.
Eric Felack, Valley News Dispatch
A wreath and memorial bench commemorate the late Paul Kochka as the Vandergrift business reopened on Monday, Feb. 11, 2013 after months of rebuilding after a fire destroyed the complex last September. Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
Eric Felack, Valley News Dispatch
Holding a photo of the late Paul Kochka, his family from left, granddaughter Lyndsey Bigler; widow Joyce Kochka; son, Greg Kochka; and daughter-in-law Darlene Kochka, opened the remodeled towing, car care, gasoline, and convenience store business in Vandergrift on Monday, Feb. 11, 2013. Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch

With balloons and some fanfare, Vandergrift's Kochka Towing and Car Care Service reopened on Monday for the first time since September, when it was decimated by an arson fire.

Cars lined up at the pump before the doors opened at 8 a.m. at the busy intersection of Sherman and Farragut avenues, across from the Vandergrift Bridge.

Patrons pulled into the garage, scheduling oil changes and car inspections. And customers hung around the store's counter, which was neatly lined with new bags of potato chips.

The Rev. Michael Sciberras from Our Lady, Queen of Peace in East Vandergrift blessed the rebuilt site, the family and the store's employees.

Most everything is new: The second-floor office, garage and the store were crisp and clean as its freshly painted earth tones were awash in sunlight on the unusually warm and sunny Monday.

“He's here,” said Lyndsey Bigley, 26, of Vandergrift. Bigley is the granddaughter of the late Paul Kochka, the family patriarch who started the business and was felled by a heart attack several months after the blaze.

The senior Kochka's presence in spirit was evident in his family's pride as well as a large, color portrait hanging in the store and a wooden bench with his name out front.

Kochka's family attributed his death to the man's broken heart from losing the business and the bleak prospect of rebuilding.

A state police fire marshal determined the fire was an arson. No arrest has been made.

The senior Kochka took the loss hard and was overheard saying he had “lost his baby,” according to his daughter-in-law, Darlene Kochka, 49, of Vandergrift, an office worker at the shop.

“This was my grandfather's legacy,” Bigley said. “He was in business for 53 years, and my dad wants to run it 53 more years.”

But it's going to be without her Pap.

Widow Joyce Kochka, 70, of Vandergrift, said, “I feel real good today. But I'm just missing him.

“When you lose your husband, it's a whole different thing,” she said. “We did everything together — working, going to movies and the casino, and dinner every night.”

Although the family was shaken by the loss, it didn't stop the rebuilding process and all the grit and determination that goes into it.

“It was terrible, when I saw my office,” Joyce Kochka said. “There was nothing left.”

The family, along with volunteers and eventually a contractor, put in 12-hour days, seven days a week for five months.

Everything had to be redone, including all of the business' records.

Volunteers from other towing companies and people from the Vandergrift area showed up to help, whether it was by bringing food or helping to tear off part of the roof, according to the family.

In fact, the family was so taken by how the community pitched in, they chose to hire a local contractor, W.A. Barr Construction of Vandergrift, rather than one from Pittsburgh, which had been recommended by their insurance company.

“My son Greg wanted to keep it ‘all local,' ” Joyce Kochka said.

Bill Barr, owner of Barr Construction, said that while rebuilding the landmark gas station, “I made a lot of friends and made a lot of family.”

The Kochkas are planning a grand opening when the weather turns warmer.

Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or

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