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Costly fire of '46 altered course of education in Monessen

| Saturday, April 5, 2014, 5:34 p.m.
This picture showing the intensity of the fire at Monessen High School is from the archive collection of Rob Bowness, a 1969 graduate of Monessen High whose family lived on McKee Avenue, not far from the school at the time of the deadly 1946 blaze.
This picture showing the intensity of the fire at Monessen High School is from the archive collection of Rob Bowness, a 1969 graduate of Monessen High whose family lived on McKee Avenue, not far from the school at the time of the deadly 1946 blaze.
Two unidentified workmen stand amid the rubble inside Monessen High School in the aftermath of the April 1946 fire that destroyed the building. It was taken by Julius R. “Bud” Conti, a school yearbook photographer and a senior at MHS at the time. Conti now lives in Melbourne, Fla.

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One of the worst disasters in the history of Monessen took a deadly toll on the city's high school on Wednesday, April 10, 1946.

Damages, which left the building on Sixth Street between Knox and Reed avenues a burned-out shell, were estimated at “between $250,000 and $300,000,” according to a story in The Daily Independent of Monessen. And the blaze claimed the life of Samuel Headley, 67, a custodian at the school and the oldest employee of the school district.

Renewed interest in the tragedy of more than 67 years ago has been stirred by a video making the social media rounds. The presentation, which appears on Facebook and YouTube, runs six minutes and 19 seconds and includes dramatic black-and-white footage obviously converted from classic movie film of that era. It also has sparked questions about the origin of the blaze and its aftermath.

The fire was discovered at 4:10 p.m. by Julius R. “Bud” Conti, a high school student who was taking pictures of W.H.R. Patterson, assistant principal, for use in the school yearbook. Conti, who now lives in Melbourne, Fla., remembers the incident as if it were yesterday.

“I was on the front steps of the high school,” Conti, 85, recalled. “As I was looking into the lens of the camera, I saw fire through the door coming from the auditorium, which was straight ahead.”

Conti, who was the MHS yearbook photographer for two years, and his assistant, Matt Sladic, ran into the school and entered the auditorium.

“Matt and I saw the curtain burning to the stage,” Conti said.

They hurried to the office of principal K. Fife Sterrett and, according to Conti, “told him the school was on fire and to call the police.”

“I meant firemen, of course, and Mr. Ferrett placed the call to the fire department,” Conti said. “Matt and I then ran to see if we could use the fire hoses in the hall to put the fire on the stage out. But the hoses would not work, they were completely inoperable. We also tried to use some cans of fire suppressant, but it was not effective.”

Conti and Sladic then ran upstairs to the smoke-filled second floor so Conti could retrieve his photography equipment, which was kept in a small room in the physics laboratory.

“Mr. (John) Harhai allowed me to use that area as my (photography) lab,” Conti said of the longtime MHS teacher. “And Mr. Headley, who was a kind man and a good friend, would let me in the school after hours to do my developing and printing. I was deeply saddened to learn later that he died not far from my photo lab.”

Responding to Sterrett's call, the Monessen Fire Department was on the scene with full equipment within 10 minutes. It was not until 12 hours later — at 4:04 a.m. April 11 — that the last firemen left the scene. The Daily Independent noted that the smoldering ruins “broke into flames again about 9 a.m. today (April 11) and the firemen were recalled but soon had the new blaze extinguished.”

About an hour after the fire was discovered, the Charleroi Fire Department arrived on the scene with two large pieces of equipment and was stationed in the driveway between the high school and the adjoining junior high school. North Belle Vernon and Belle Vernon No. 2 departments also responded later, and toward evening four men and a small truck from Large arrived and offered their services to Monessen Fire Chief James Hanam.

Hanam reported that 55 Monessen firemen responded to the blaze and were assisted by 33 from Charleroi, 22 from Belle Vernon and North Belle Vernon, and five from Large.

When Monessen firemen initially arrived on the scene, great billows of black smoke were pouring from two windows in the rear of the building and the auditorium, according to newspaper accounts, “was a mass of flames.”

The Daily Independent story said the stage “was being eaten away by the blistering flames and fire in the rear of the stage had great headway before firemen were able to play their first stream of water. Using the hook and ladder, Chief Hanam directed the firefighters to the edge of the roof in an effort to prevent the blaze from spreading to both wings of the building and the roof. As the firemen played two streams of water on the outside into the open windows, where the heaviest smoke was emerging, and another stream on the blazing auditorium, it was generally believed that the efforts of the local department alone could keep the fire under control.”

However, as streams of water gushed forth, a loud rumble was heard and flames roared through the roof and “long tongues of flames” rushed through the two rear windows of the building. The intensity of the flames “threw a scare into the spectators, who were mingling about the grounds in the way of the firemen, and they began moving back to the sidewalk on Knox Avenue,” the newspaper reported.

As Monessen firefighters fought furiously on the outside, their colleagues labored inside to keep the blaze from spreading outside the auditorium and the rear of the stage, where most of the fire was initially concentrated. Their efforts “were in vain,” The Independent said, as the flames “ignored their streams of water and continued to burn through the rear of the building in all directions.”

Charleroi firemen were dispatched to the driveway between the high school and junior high, which were connected by a covered walkway, to keep the fire from the east wing of the building where it could threaten the junior high.

They connected two hoses from the plugs at Ninth Street and Knox Avenue and on Reed Avenue between Sixth and Ninth streets, placed their hook and ladder against the building and began pouring water on the roof.

Ron Paglia is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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