Monessen school blaze of '46 challenged firefighters
Part 2 of 2
As volunteer firemen from throughout the area battled the deadly April 10-11, 1946, fire at Monessen High School from several angles outside the building, the auditorium was an inferno and constant smoke was so thick that firemen were forced to work in spells.
Five members of the Monessen company were fighting the auditorium intensity in water nearly two feet deep and, The Daily Independent of Monessen reported, “miraculously escaped death or serious injuries” when the ceiling above the stage and the roof over the first three rows of seats gave way and crashed to the floor. The story said one fireman saw the ceiling and roof giving way and shouted, “Watch out! The roof is caving in!” The five men were able to escape to the rear of the auditorium before the crash came. The hose they were using was caught under the crash and as they pulled it out from under the debris it was burned beyond use.
The fire, which was discovered at 4:10 p.m. April 11 by Julius R. “Bud” Conti, a senior and yearbook photographer at the school, reached it climax about 7:30 p.m. when it broke out in several rooms on the second floor of the west wing of the building. North Belle Vernon and Belle Vernon firemen were working on the Sixth Street side when flames erupted from the rooms and then roared through the roof. As they concentrated on one room and believed they had extinguished the blaze, it shifted to another. Just as they had the second room under control, the blaze would break out in the first room again. This continued until 10 p.m.
“At no time was there any one place the fire departments could concentrate their attack,” The Daily Independent reported. “Flames broke out in all directions. Within five minutes, at one time, three new fires in the front of the building had to be combatted. A changing and strong wind resulted in the firemen having to change their strategy several times. On the Sixth Street side, the flames would be shooting towards Knox Avenue and then a change of wind would cause them to turn into the interior of the building.”
Firemen also had serious concerns around 8 p.m. as the fire neared the chemistry room, where bottles of chemicals were stored, in the front of the building. They were successful in preventing the flames from reaching the majority of the chemicals, although several bottles of nitric acid exploded.
The roof over the auditorium and on the right wing was burned away completely and partially gutted on the left wing side and the front of the building.
The intense heat and frequent collapses of portions of the roof “made it perilous for firemen,” the newspaper said. It continued: “Two feet of water ran through the corridors. Fireman Joseph Kotch was injured when he slipped on the floor while fighting the blaze on the second floor. Another, Joseph Dankosky, suffered a cut hand.”
Another fireman, Pete Bonini, had to be given medical treatment by Dr. Max Heatter, firemen's physician, when he was overcome by smoke and suffered shock. Bonini was reported in good condition at midnight.
The heaviest damage from the fire was in the auditorium, where nothing was saved. The balcony crashed down to the flaming main floor and only a sturdy steel beam prevented the moving picture projection room and its equipment from prying itself loose and falling. The interior of the auditorium, including the entire stage, was a mass of ruins. The intense heat twisted the giant steel beams that supported the building.
In addition to the auditorium, 12 classrooms on each of the first and second floors were severely damaged, and eight feet of water was reported in the gymnasium. Rooms on the east wing incurred only minor damage as most of the fire was on the west side and in the center of the building from the front to the rear. Water caused much damage to athletic equipment and some school records.
Dr. A. John Goetz, superintendent of schools, said all but a few unimportant records were transferred from the administrative offices in the front of the building to the junior high school before the fire worked its way forward.
“We (seniors) were very concerned about our records and graduation,” said Conti, who lives in Melbourne, Fla. “Matt (Sladic) and I were to go to Pitt and needed our records. But we finished school in the next door (junior high) building. Everyone crowded together, but it worked out and graduation was held at the football stadium.”
While Conti, 85, is retired from a long and successful military career, Sladic died a few years ago in Texas after working as an executive with Aramco for more than 25 years in Saudi Arabia. Sladic was Conti's assistant with yearbook photography duties and they reported the fire to school officials.
Conti's sister, Doris (Conti) Zeli, of Rostraver Township, was a freshman at the time of the 1946 fire and recalled her concerns about her brother in an earlier interview.
“Because the fire occurred after school had been dismissed, I was worried because that's when Bud spent time developing and printing his pictures in the darkroom,” she said. “When I learned of the fire, I ran from our home on top of Second Street to the high school, breaking all running time records, fearful that Bud was still in the dark room. I was unaware of what was happening, and I was so grateful to learn he was OK.”
Zeli also remembers the ensuing years leading to her graduation in 1949.
“Our classes were held in a few of the undamaged or repaired classrooms in the high school and in the junior high building,” she said.
When Zeli graduated, the new high school “was just in the planning stage,” she said.
A bond issue was approved for construction of the new school, and final preparations for its opening continued as late as August 1952.
A contract in the amount of $23,700 was awarded to the Branna Construction Co., general contractor for the new high school, for landscaping and parking facilities at the high school and junior high only a month before classes were to begin. Additional contracts were awarded for cleaning, sealing and waxing all asphalt tile and terrazzo floors in the two buildings; renovation of dressing, shower and other areas of the junior high; and other general work, such as plumbing and electrical.
While classes began as scheduled on Tuesday, Sept. 2, cafeteria service was delayed until Sept. 8. Superintendent Dr. Michael Duda said the delay in opening the ultra-modern cafeteria was necessary for a survey to determine how many students, teachers, administrators and school employees planned to eat their lunches there. Enrollment in the city's public schools that years was 2,809, while another 582 attended three local parochial schools (St. Leonard's, Holy Name, St. Hyacinth). In addition to the junior-senior high school, the public facilities were Vocational, Ben Franklin, Jefferson, Lincoln, Linden and Washington schools.
Monessen has had three high school buildings. The original structure, which was dedicated on June 1, 1916, in time for graduation, and its successor, the one that opened in September 1952, were both located at Sixth Street and Reed Avenue. The last group of graduates from the latter school was the Class of 1995. The current building located on State Road opened in September 1995.
According to historical information in Monessen's Diamond Jubilee book in 1973, a high school program existed as early as 1901 when it was housed in the Jefferson Building in a room designated especially for that purpose. The first group of students to graduate from the high school curriculum received their diplomas in 1904.
Ron Paglia is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.
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