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Shaler basketball player dies in fire

| Monday, Sept. 17, 2001, 12:00 p.m.

Troy Piekarski came home from college for the weekend and saw his youngest brother Zachary for the last time.

Zachary Piekarski, 16, of Shaler Township, died early Sunday when fire destroyed the Greenwood Road duplex where he lived with his father, Bill.

The elder Piekarski was not home when flames broke out. The cause of the blaze has not been established.

'Honestly, even though he's my youngest brother, I looked up to him,' his brother said.

Troy, 20, was sleeping on a couch on the first floor of the house at about 1:15 a.m. when he was awakened by two of his brother's friends who had been visiting.

The house was on fire, and Zachary was sleeping in his third-floor bedroom.

Troy said he twice tried to climb the stairs, but was forced back by thick, black smoke. He hoisted one of Zachary's friends onto the second-story roof and broke Zachary's bedroom window, but they were unable to rouse him.

The house was engulfed in flames by the time firefighters arrived, said Shaler Township Fire Chief Richard Zillweger. The family who lives in the other half of the duplex was not home at the time, Zillweger said.

Zachary Piekarski died of smoke inhalation and first- and third-degree burns, which covered 90 percent to 95 percent of his body, according to the Allegheny County Coroner's Office. He was pronounced dead at the scene around 4 a.m.

He was a junior at Shaler Area High School, an honor roll student and a starting member of the high school basketball team, his brother said.

'He saw what people were worth on the inside. I never heard him degrade another person,' said Troy, standing next to a pile of charred sneakers and basketballs he had removed from the remains of the duplex.

Shaler High basketball coach Howie Ruppert said Zachary came to his classroom Tuesday to comfort him after news of the terrorist attacks broke, because he knew Ruppert had coached in New York.

'He came in and sat with me,' said Ruppert, who had coached some of the firefighters who died trying to save people from the fiery World Trade Center towers. 'That is the kind of kid he was. He cared. It is a shame this had to happen.'

Ruppert coached at St. Peter's Boys High School in Manhattan for 17 years and for two seasons at the College of Stanton Island. Several of the New York firefighters played for him at those two schools.

'This has been a devastating week for me,' Ruppert said. 'On top of the firefighters I knew who died, I have to deal with losing one of my players. Zach was a good kid and a smart kid. He told me he wanted to go to an Ivy League school someday.'

Zachary, who played the guard/forward position, helped Shaler win a WPIAL Quad-A first-round playoff game against Mt. Lebanon last season. He replaced Titans' starter Joe Warner, who had been injured.

'Zachary helped us win that game,' Ruppert said. 'He is a player who will be missed and not just for his basketball ability. He was always smiling, and he could make you laugh.'

Ruppert didn't have much to smile about this past week.

'Life is so fragile, and you never know why these things happen,' Ruppert said. 'So you have to make sure you hug your kids, and don't be afraid to tell people you love them.'

Zachary was the youngest of three brothers. His other brother, Derek, 18, was in Slippery Rock when the fire broke out. His mother, Pamela, lives in Lawrenceville.

'I loved the kid,' Derek Piekarski said of his brother.

A neighbor, Thomas Goughnour, 19, said he often played basketball with the youngest Piekarski in a nearby park.

'He kept to himself. He was a real quiet kid, a good kid,' Goughnour said.

Troy Piekarski is a student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He came home this weekend to fulfill his monthly service as a member of the National Guard. 'At least I got to see him for the last time,' he said.

Friends will be received from 1 to 5 p.m. and 6 to 9 p.m. today and Tuesday at D'Alessandro Funeral Home at 4522 Butler St., Lawrenceville. The funeral will be Wednesday at St. Bonaventure Church, 2001 Mt. Royal Blvd., Shaler Township.

Jonathan Potts can be reached at jpotts@tribweb.com or (412) 320-7900.

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