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Local forgotten hero finds permanent place in history

| Wednesday, May 3, 2006

When we think of heroes, famous names like John F. Kennedy or Mother Theresa may spring to mind, but thanks to Connellsville Councilman Terry Bodes and other concerned members of the community, the name of a little-known local hero, Frank Stirone, will soon be commemorated with a plaque bearing his name for all to honor and appreciate.

Like many thousands of immigrants of his day, Italian immigrant Francesco, or Frank, Stirone and his family moved to the Connellsville area in the early 1900s to take advantage of the vast opportunities available in the city during that era.

Finding work as a miner, Stirone lived in a small, rented tract house in the village of Trotter, just outside the thriving city of Connellsville. He shared the house with his wife, Maria, their four children, and three relatives, who paid board to help cover the bills.

Unable to read, write or speak English, Stirone and his family existed at the bottom of society's totem pole. Undaunted by the opinion of others, he was reputed to be a hard-working family man, and was well-liked by those who shared their small community.

On the cold morning of Jan. 12, 1911, Stirone boarded the trolley to head into town, having an errand to run.

Departments stores then were a new and exciting concept, especially the new McCrorey's 5 & 10 Cent Store. It was a great addition to the shopping in town; the selection was plentiful, with quality items offered at reasonable rates; and the service was superb, offering customers the assistance of a store manager, two assistant managers and an unheard of 12 clerks to tend to the customers. For everyone's entertainment, a piano player was on hand to play for the busy shoppers.

On that cold winter morning, approximately a dozen shoppers, including Stirone, fanned across the store, while gas company workers were in the basement area replacing a gas meter. At approximately 9:30 a.m, a few of the clerks complained of a gas odor filtering throughout the store.

Shortly after being assured by the manager that a problem did not exist, the store exploded, rocking and shaking the entire city. Shelves toppled and ceiling beams fell. The piano player was blown through a plate glass window into the street.

Screams were heard, as many remained trapped inside. Soon firefighters and rescuers arrived at the scene, but the now blazing inferno left them little precious time to enter the burning structure to attempt rescues.

Amidst the utter chaos, a man emerged from the smoke carrying a young girl to safety. Setting her down quickly, he immediately turned and ran back into the building, now engulfed in flames. He was never to be seen alive again.

Five died on that January morning, and 29 were injured. When the fire cleared, six buildings were destroyed or damaged at the cost of $75,000, which by today's standards would be approximately $1.5 million.

When Stirone did not return to his family that evening, his mine superintendent, P.J. Tormay, made the trip to Connellsville to check on his status. He then identified one of the bodies as that of Stirone.

The front page of the local newspaper sang praises of Stirone's heroism.

However, when store owner John G. McCrorey offered to pay for the funeral of those who had died, he refused to pay for Stirone's. The poor, brave hero was then buried in a local cemetery with a funeral home covering the expenses for the family.

Upon learning of Stirone's story, Bodes, Reed and others took it upon themselves to make certain this great local hero was recognized today. A plaque will be installed on the very building where the McCrorey store once stood.

"We read the story about him in January," Bodes said, "and we thought it was a great story and that we should do something to honor him. We wanted the community to remember him for what he was."

So, at 1 p.m. Saturday, an official plaque dedication and installation will take place at the site of the old McCrorey building, which was at the northwest corner of North Pittsburgh and Apple streets.

Many of Stirone's relatives will present for the dedication. In addition, family members of those killed and injured will attend.

"The family members are so thrilled that we're doing this," Bodes said.

Reed will begin the welcome at 1, followed by a blessing of the plaque by the Rev. Frank Lesniowski, of St. Rita's Roman Catholic Church, Connellsville.

Following the dedication, a reception will be held at the City Church of Connellsville, on Pittsburgh Street. All are invited to attend.

"So much happened in our city," Reed said. "We were the original melting pot. It will be nice for the children and for the people of the area to know of their history and their heritage."

Donations were collected for the plaque. Community members reportedly gave generously to honor this local hero.

Bodes and Reed hope this dedication will be the start of similar future ceremonies for others who performed remarkable deeds.

"We're hoping that others from the area will be honored as well," Reed said. "This is really our history, and we need to mark and remember their unselfish behavior."

Family members of those killed and injured are invited to attend.

Those killed on that fateful day were Christabel Smith, Mable Wagner, Minnie Mulac, Ada Pearl Thomas and Stirone.

Injured were Margaret Reese, Rose Jakes, Mrs. F. Edward Miller, Blanche Miller, Martha Woods, C.L. Poff, Charles Loomis, Anna Furtney, Gertrude Opperman, Bertha Beal, Mary King, Ada Mitchell, Rose Leighty, Nellie Mitchell, Mary Wagner, Lloyd K. Fisher, Cleveland Warrick, Riley Smeak, Alexander Kooser, Harry Davis, Joseph Johnston, Samuel Halhill, J.G. Gorman, Wooda Crossland, Mrs. S.M. Morris, S.H. Howard, Ray Rishebarger, Edward Duggan and Jesse Cypher.

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