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Bricks tumble from downtown Monessen building

| Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013, 12:52 a.m.
Monessen Mayor Mary Jo Smith talks to reporter as clean up begins after facade fall off vacant building in Monesen. Monessen Heavy Machine Operator Delmar Hepple drives loader to clean up the bricks. Jim Ference | The Valley Independent
Captian Ryan Hess from Monessen #1 Volunteer Fire Department and Municipal Fire Chief Delmar Hepple check out bricks to be taken down after collapse of the facade on vacant building in Monessen, In bucket is 2nd assistant Fire Chief Charles Keller from Monessen #1 VFD and not shown Leonard Billy Monessen Streets and Parks Superintendent. Jim Ference | The Valley Independent

Frank Pager was asleep in his second-story apartment when he was awakened around 5:30 a.m. to the sound of bricks falling from a 535 Donner Ave., Monessen, building

He heard bricks falling again at 7 a.m.

“It sounded like the whole roof was coming down, that's how loud it was,” said Pager, who lives above Koury's Buy-Sell-Trade at 541 Donner Ave.

“I looked out the window and saw a big pile of bricks. Then I saw a guy on his cell phone calling 911.”

That man, Sam Abbott, was crossing Donner at Sixth Street, headed to his office at First Federal Savings Bank.

“I heard the rumble, and when I looked up, I saw it hit the ground,” said Abbott, who heads up the bank's Internet technology department.

Abbott said few others were on the street at the time. He saw a man in a white Jeep stop to examine his vehicle. The vehicle was not hit by falling debris, so the man drove off. Two women were walking on Donner by The Torn Page, a half block away.

“It was fortunate it happened when it did,” Abbott said. “An hour or two later and there definitely would have been people on the street.”

Mayor Mary Jo Smith said the building is owned by the city redevelopment authority. Monessen took over the building, which had various owners over the years. None had improved the structure.

John Harhai, Redevelopment Authority of the City of Monessen executive director, said that in recent years, the city has acquired a number of dilapidated properties that had kept changing hands.

The damaged building originally was home to Monessen Plumbing, Harhai said.

Smith was uncertain of the building's age, but some neighboring structures on the same side of Donner bear dates ranging from 1900 to 1924.

Harhai estimated the building was constructed sometime from 1915 through 1920.

City fire and street crews, along with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, blocked off Donner between Fifth and Sixth streets. PennDOT agreed to allow two-way traffic on Schoonmaker Avenue from Fifth to 12th streets.

Smith said that was done so tractor-trailers could pass through the downtown area.

City engineers checked on stability of the bulk of the building. They determined most of the damage to the exterior structure was contained to the facade.

For about an hour – as a safety measure – West Penn Power shut off electricity to businesses in a one-block area on the side of Donner in which the building is located.

In that time, crews removed additional bricks on the facade and front section near the roof that were in danger of falling.

The 500 and 600 blocks of Donner were closed from around 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. The Pasta Shoppe, located in that section of Donner, was without power as lunch approached.

“January and February are always tough,” Pasta Shoppe employee Susie Turkovich said. “We're functioning, but this doesn't help.”

Rita Bercik, who lives above The Pasta Shoppe, said she often hears bricks falling from buildings in that block.

“It's just a matter of time before someone gets hurt,” Bercik said. “I'm just glad no one got hurt this time.”

Municipal Fire Chief Delmar Hepple was among those who used a fire department bucket truck to access the roof. Hepple said he saw separation between the facade and the rest of the building. Crews removed unstable bricks.

“We took it to a point where I could no longer see daylight,” Hepple said. “The rest up there is pretty solid. If I had to use any force to pry it off, I left it.”

City workers put a tarp on the roof to keep out moisture.

Smith said the engineers were inspecting the building to determine whether it can be repaired.

“If they determine it needs demolished, then we'll look for funds,” Smith said.

“We're talking a pretty penny to demolish it. If it just needs stabilized, we'll do so.

“We have a lot of beautiful architecture in this town. We'd like to save what we can.”

Chris Buckley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-684-2642 or