Fire that leveled 3 Vandergrift homes under investigation
By Liz Hayes
Published: Saturday, Dec. 28, 2013, 4:27 p.m.
The Bielek family on Saturday tried to appreciate the little things they could recover from the burned out shell that once was their home on Burns Street in Vandergrift.
Reaching between the Christmas lights and police tape around her front window, Carrie Bielek was able to pull out a few sooty houseplants she'd inherited from her grandmother. Her husband, Brian Bielek, discovered his new pair of still-white sneakers, and their 16-year-old daughter Lindsay found a pair of her boots.
But the family wasn't expecting to salvage much else after an overnight inferno destroyed their home and two neighboring houses in the West Vandergrift neighborhood.
Vandergrift Fire Department No. 2 Chief Steve Potoka said the house at 519 Burns St. was engulfed when firefighters arrived about 10:30 p.m. Friday. The flames soon spread to the houses on either side — the Bieleks' at 515 Burns, and 521 Burns, which is owned by Brian and Sherry Grazulis.
Potoka said no residents were injured.
Three firefighters suffered what Potoka called non-serious injuries; one was struck by a hose coupling, one slid on ice and a third suffered chest pains. Potoka believed all had been treated and released by Saturday morning.
Potoka said the proximity of the houses, wind whipping the flames and low water pressure made extinguishing the fire difficult. He estimated it was 2 a.m. Saturday before the fire was under control.
“We're talking just a few feet between some of these houses,” Potoka said. “And we had some winds that provoked the fire.”
As for reports of water-pressure problems, Potoka said it was largely because of the large amount of water numerous engines were trying to pull from the system at once. Aside from one fire hydrant on Bryant Street that didn't work, possibly because it had frozen, Potoka said there was no systemic malfunction.
Potoka said a large number of fire companies from Armstrong and Westmoreland counties responded. They used a combination of fire hydrants and tanker trucks for water.
Gina Cerilli, spokeswoman for the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County, which provides water to Vander-grift, said there were no known problems with the water system in the Vandergrift area.
“Water pressure was at normal operating levels,” she said in a written statement. “Fire department pumpers initially were withdrawing more water than our lines could deliver at the fire's location.”
Cerilli said an authority foreman was on site during the fire and directed firefighters to a Holland Street hydrant about 2,000 feet from the fire that is supplied by a 12-inch main line.
Cerilli said the hydrants were inspected on Saturday and one was found to have a broken coupling: “It could not be determined if it was broken last night or prior to the fire.”
She said all other hydrants in the area were found to be operating properly.
Vandergrift Council President Brian Carricato vehemently denied rumors that problems with water pressure were somehow related to the borough's stormwater-sewage separation project, the first phase of which was completed recently in West Vandergrift.
“It is imperative that people know the sewer-separation project had zero to do with it. It's apples and oranges,” Carricato said of the two systems.
Fire deemed suspicious
Potoka remained at the scene 12 hours after the fire began, helping Trooper Chet Bell, a state police fire marshal, sift through the rubble in what was left of the basement at 519 Burns St.
Potoka and Bell said the cause of the fire was under investigation; Potoka said it is considered suspicious.
Vandergrift police Officer Mark Lieu said he was called to 519 Burns St. about 5 p.m. Friday because the man who owned the house was burning boxes in a fire pit under his back deck.
Lieu declined to identify the man. Westmoreland County deed records indicate the house was bought in July by Thomas S. Cassidy and Melissa A. Chambers; they could not be reached for comment.
Lieu said he asked the man to extinguish the fire, which violated borough restrictions on open burning.
Lieu said the man appeared intoxicated and was taken into custody for several hours to “sober up” because he became confrontational with police. Lieu said the man received several citations for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct.
While police were dealing with the man, Potoka was called to put out the pit fire, Lieu said.
The man's fiancee and a couple of family members who were visiting from out of state told police they were fed up with the man's drinking and were leaving, Lieu said. Neighbors described seeing a woman at the house packing up belongings and driving away on Friday evening.
Police returned the man to the house about 8 p.m., Lieu said.
When the house fire was reported a few hours later, Lieu said, police returned and found the man to be combative. He again was taken into custody; Lieu said the man was being treated at a medical facility on Saturday for an unspecified reason.
The man at the least will receive another disorderly conduct citation, Lieu said. He has not been charged in connection with the house fire.
Lieu said he is unaware of any previous problems at the house or with the man.
In addition to the three homes and the Bieleks' garage that were destroyed, Potoka said two neighboring homes at 513 and 523 Burns may have suffered smoke or water damage.
With its “Bless this House” sign on the front door, 523 Burns St. appeared largely unscathed, but large pieces of the destroyed building at 521 Burns were leaning on the roof and siding.
The houses at 519 and 521 Burns had collapsed into their foundations.
The Bieleks' garage, which sat between their house and 519 Burns, was burned almost to nothing.
Carrie Bielek said they had just finished watching the Pittsburgh Penguins game when her daughter, who was in her second-floor bedroom, noticed the fire at the neighboring house. The Bieleks fled with only their cellphones, their Siberian Husky, Cas, and the clothes they were wearing.
“We had a little bit of hope (that the fire wouldn't reach their house), but then the garage started burning,” Carrie Bielek said.
The family, which owned the house for about 26 years, is staying with family in Washington Township.
Potoka said the owners of all three destroyed houses have insurance.
Carricato and the Rev. R. J. Hesketh at Franklin Avenue Church of God in Vander-grift said they are organizing a collection of clothing, toiletries, food, money, gift cards and other items for the affected families.
Carricato said updates about the families' needs will be posted on a Facebook page: “Support for victims of Vandergrift fire.”
“Possessions can be replaced,” Carricato said. “The most important thing is no lives were lost.”
Liz Hayes is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4680 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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