McKeesporters mourn neighbor's fiery death
An elderly man affectionately known in his neighborhood as “Ace” perished Saturday when a fire swept through the McKeesport home where he had lived for nearly six decades.
Neighbors and family members identified him as Robert Gaska, 87, of 424 Archer St. in McKeesport's Upper 10th Ward. He had lived in the home since September 1954 and was found dead in the basement.
“He was great with kids,” neighbor Tom Bills said. “On Halloween, he would stand outside and give kids little bags of money instead of giving them candy. He was kind, just an all-around good guy. It's a shame that it ended like this.”
One of Gaska's neighbors, McKeesport firefighter Jay Pravdica, was among those who attempted to reach him upon spotting the fire before daybreak.
“The fire had a significant start before being noticed, and the first reports were from neighbors who were getting up for work,” Allegheny County Chief of Emergency Services Alvin Henderson said. “In this season, if you smell wood burning, you would assume someone has a wood burner going. That has a tendency to mask an early report of a fire.”
Most of the damage was on the basement level extending to the first floor, Henderson said. Officials determined that the fire started in the basement, and the cause does not appear to be suspicious, he said.
A representative of Allegheny County Medical Examiner's Office said Sunday that Gaska's autopsy was complete, but determinations on the cause and manner of death were pending.
Gaska was a lifelong McKeesporter who grew up on Jenny Lind Street and lived in several city homes before settling in the Upper 10th Ward.
Duane Gaska, who lives in Port Vue, returned to his father's home almost daily.
“Because of the weather we had, I didn't make it up here yesterday after a long day at work,” Duane Gaska said, fighting back tears. “I would have been here today anyway. Saturday was my workday here to change his bedding, clean up after him and see what groceries he needed … the normal help you would give to an elderly person.”
Resident Michelle Trail said the whole neighborhood kept an eye on Robert Gaska.
“We would see him outside and start calling each other to see what he was up to,” Trail said. “He's been here forever … for as long as I know.”
Trail remembers Gaska coming outside for summer pizza parties with neighborhood children on her Havilla Street porch, which is across the street from his now-destroyed home.
“He was a well-liked guy,” McKeesport fire Chief Kevin Lust said. “Everyone I've talked to has something to say. They all knew him.”
McKeesport firefighters had been dispatched on another call in the city's Christy Park neighborhood when the call came in for the Archer Street fire.
Off-duty crews were called to assist at 5:43 a.m.
“They thought they had it knocked down, but the fire ran up the walls,” Lust said. “The first floor caved in to the basement.”
McKeesport called for assistance from Glassport Citizens Hose Company No. 1 and Liberty Borough Volunteer Fire Company, while Dravosburg and White Oak firefighters held down city stations.
Jennifer R. Vertullo is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1956, or firstname.lastname@example.org.