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Readers rekindle reminders of fire at Corning building

| Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

There's nothing like an inadvertent oversight to catch the attention of readers of the weekly backward glances in this corner.

That certainly was the case with a recent reference to the long-gone American Window Glass Company in Belle Vernon.

The story included accounts of destructive fires and another costly industrial accident at the site.

“If you had done your homework you would have learned that another devastating fire struck those facilities in 1953,” a reader in North Belle Vernon said.

“It was a horrific incident.”

The reader is correct but it was not the American Window Glass Company, which closed in 1949, that was impacted.

The Monday, Dec. 21, 1953, fire caused an estimated $600,000 in damages to a Corning Glass Works warehouse in Belle Vernon.

Firefighters battled the blaze for nearly 12 hours and were still on the scene the morning of Dec. 22 in their tireless efforts to keep the flames from spreading to the Berger Furnace Company.

The Corning warehouse and the Berger plant were located in the old American Window Glass installations at the corner of Water and Main streets at the southern end of Belle Vernon.

Reporter George Hess of The Monessen Daily Independent wrote that the fire was discovered at about 8 Monday evening, “but it had such a runaway head start that all about 500 men from seven fire companies could to was try to keep the flames from spreading to the warehouse to Berger Furnace company.”

Only the warehouse was involved in the blaze that ruined an estimated $500,000 worth of products from the Corning Glass plant in Charleroi and caused another $100,000 in damages to the buildings, Hess reported.

His story was accompanied by dramatic pictures of the destruction by veteran Daily Independent photographer John Hurrianko.

Belle Vernon Fire Chief Kenneth Beazell, who was in charge of the fight against the huge fire, told Hess losses sustained by Berger Furnace involved parts stored in a portion of one of the gutted warehouse.

“The buildings that were hit by the fire rep-

resent approximately one-third of the American Window Glass plant bought by Berger Furnace about two years ago,” Hess wrote.

“Berger located its factory operations and its subsidiary, the Berger Service Company, in the series of buildings that front on Main Street. The other set of buildings where the fire broke out run along the Monongahela River parallel to the Main Street structures. They were leased to Corning Glass as a warehouse after Berger Furnace acquired the property.”

Beazell said the fire was discovered by Frank Matrozzo of 211 Water St., who saw the flames in the storage building at Fourth Street.

Beazell estimated that it took less a minute for the Belle Vernon Volunteer Company No. 2 truck to reach the scene from its Water Street station, “but even so the flames had already broken through the roof,” Hess reported.

Other area fire departments helping fight the blaze were North Belle Vernon, Monessen (both companies), Charleroi, Fayette City and Washington Township. Monessen sent six trucks – five from the City Hall station and one from Hose House No. 2, according to Municipal Fire Chief W. Roy McShaffrey. The Monessen contingent remained at the scene until about 2:30 a.m. Tuesday pumping water from the river and fighting the fire.

A Monessen firefighter, Louis Manderino of Hose House No. 2, suffered minor cuts to both legs when a large piece of glass shattered.

The only other firefighter reported injured was Albert Githens of North Belle Vernon, who stepped on a nail that was driven through his foot.

Hess reported that before the fire could be brought completely under control, “an enormous section of roof fell in and girders and beams throughout the warehouses were twisted and warped by the heat into fantastic shapes.”

He also wrote that the flames, “fed mainly by the cardboard cartons in which the Corning glassware was packed, melted and fused the glass products into great dunes of junk that were still smoking and smoldering today.”

The Charleroi Mail reported in its account of the fire that Lincoln Pre-Fab Homes and Santori Furniture Company were located in buildings adjoining the site of the blaze. Those firms, however, were not damaged.

As would be expected, the fire drew hundreds – perhaps thousands – of spectators on both sides of the river and impacted traffic.

“At the height of the fire traffic was snarled on the Speers Bridge and many drivers went to Allenport to take the ferry across the river to Belle Vernon,” The Mail reported. “At one time the ferry was alerted to hold up for the California Fire Company trucks that were responding to the alarm in Belle Vernon.”

State police came to the assistance of Belle Vernon and North Belle Vernon authorities in handling the sudden increase in vehicles, “which came speeding into Belle Vernon from every side,” The Mail coverage of the fire said.

On Wednesday, Dec. 23, The Charleroi Mail reported that the Belle Vernon Fire department “concluded a 24-hour vigil last night” at the site of the disastrous fire.

“Yesterday, high winds fanned anew small blazes in the shell of the building and the Belle Vernon department stood by until 10:30 p.m. last evening,” the newspaper reported.

Belle Vernon Police Chief Vince Isenberg reported that no cause of the fire had yet been determined, explaining that “it is impossible to search the building due to the mass of rubble, twisted steel and caved-in roofing.”

Authorities were expected to step up their investigation once the debris had been cleared from the site.

The Daily Independent reported that Corning and Berger both had insurance coverage on the property destroyed by the fire.

Corning Glass issued a stern warning to anyone “who carried home apparently undamaged glassware from the warehouse.”

“Don't use it,” the company said.

Paul Schulz, superintendent of the Charleroi plant of Corning Glass Works, said that the characteristics of glass “are changed when it is subjected to intense heat.”

“And even if it remains unbroken while being heated, it is likely to shatter with explosive force when reheated,” Schulz told The Daily Independent.

Because of these explosive tendencies, George Hess wrote, Schulz “strongly urged that (glassware taken from the fire site) not be used.”

Ron Paglia is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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