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Fire guts company's warehouse

| Friday, May 6, 2005

Arson was the cause of a fire that gutted a Beaver Falls produce and garden company's century-old warehouse, officials said Thursday.

Someone broke in through a first-floor side door of the warehouse at the Beaver County Fruit Co., Fourth Street and Seventh Avenue, then set fire to the second floor, said Beaver Falls Fire Chief Mark Stowe.

Stowe initially estimated damage at $750,000 to $1 million, but that amount could be reduced.

Owner David Tkacik said the building was insured and was used as a secondary cooler for produce, as well as storage for gardening supplies, old machinery and other equipment. The company has been in business for 23 years and employs about 50 people at the central location and three other retail outlets. The company also supplies produce for many restaurants and institutions in the area.

"Hopefully, we can rebuild. We need that cooler space," Tkacik said.

Crews were loading trucks in another warehouse when the fire was reported about 11 p.m. Wednesday. Three aerial ladder trucks battled the blaze, which took about two hours to bring under control.

"We got there and the fire was already through the roof," said Beaver Falls Fire Capt. Bud Anderson. "There was no real saving the building. It was already pretty well consumed."

Boarded windows, a tar roof and a cargo elevator shaft that acted like a chimney caused problems for firefighters.

The business lost another warehouse to a fire in 1988, on the site now occupied by the retail operation and several greenhouses. Tkacik said damage from that fire was about $500,000, and the cause was ruled accidental as a result of a malfunctioning air compressor used in the refrigeration process.

Stowe said a state police fire marshal ruled out the compressors and other equipment as the cause of Wednesday's fire.

"It didn't start anywhere near the compressor this time," Stowe said. He declined to discuss any evidence that investigators might have found.

Firefighters protected the adjacent greenhouses by keeping them sprayed down throughout the blaze. Customers continued to buy produce and flowers yesterday.

"I've always shopped here since they opened, and I hope to continue," said Sharon Spratt, of Beaver Falls, who was buying flats of flowers for her garden and the Mother's Day weekend. "Dave has really added to the community. He's brought employment and he's brought business."

Stowe said the investigation will continue.

"Now it's a matter of trying to find suspects," he said.

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