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Fire rocks Donora

| Thursday, April 9, 2009

DONORA - Three borough families watched in horror Wednesday as a fast-moving fire ripped through their homes.

The blaze started around 1 p.m. at a home at 563 Thompson Ave. and quickly spread to the houses on either side.

Flames were shooting through the roof of the middle house when firefighters arrived. Within moments, the fire spread to the adjacent homes, blanketing the neighborhood with thick, black smoke. Two of the houses collapsed.

Dozens of people crowded the street, covering their faces to shield themselves from the smoke and ashes.

Francine Simms, of 563 Thompson Ave., sobbed as she watched her home of nearly 30 years burn. She said the fire might have started on her back porch.

"I think someone started this fire. This is awful. I'm scared to death," she said, as family and friends gathered around her.

A state police fire marshal is investigating the cause of the fire and was expected to return to the scene today.

Donora police dismissed reports that two juveniles were seen in the area where the fire started.

"There is no truth to that whatsoever," Donora police Superintendent James Brice said.

Simms said she is raising her three grandchildren, and that they were packing and preparing to move. The children were not in school because their spring break started today. The family lost everything.

Mailey Phillips, 13, who lives across the street, said she saw the flames and rushed to help Simms and her family.

"I heard this pop and I ran outside. The flames were already shooting out of the house. We helped get everyone outside," Mailey said.

Valerie Phillips said she couldn't believe how fast the fire spread.

"I feel sorry for them. This is terrible," Phillips said. "Francine is a good person, and she's trying to raise her grandchildren. This is going to be hard."

Firefighters from at least five departments used three ladder trucks to battle the blaze. Two of the homes collapsed in the rear as the fire raged for more than three hours.

Donora firefighters were at the scene until about 9:30 last night. A demolition crew was expected to tear down what's left of the houses today - after the fire marshal is done investigating.

Paramedics and emergency personnel handed out water bottles to the firefighters, who grew weary from the heat and smoke. They wore masks and strapped air tanks to their backs as they climbed up ladders and across rooftops.

Brice said at least one firefighter was injured, suffering a twisted ankle.

Members of the Gozdonovich family, who live in the two-story frame house next to Simms, were shocked to return home to find the fire had spread to their house, with their pets still inside.

"I just don't know what we're going to do," said Emogene Gozdonovich, as she sobbed alongside her daughter, Megan.

The family thought it had lost its dog and cat in the blaze, but about two hours after it started, their black Labrador retriever suddenly walked out the front door.

"Oh, thank God!" Gozdonovich yelled. "I can't believe it."

They wrapped their arms around the dog as it limped to safety, possibly with an injured paw.

While tears flowed, tensions among the neighbors grew. At one point, Donora police had to separate some neighbors as an argument broke out about how the fire started. Police made neighbors and onlookers move farther down Thompson Avenue, away from the heavy smoke.

Down the street, Jim and Lori Dodd watched the two-story home at 561 Thompson Ave. they've been remodeling for several years go up in flames. The house was vacant.

Jim Dodd said he rushed home from his job in downtown Pittsburgh to be with his pregnant wife and their daughter. Lori Dodd's son is due to be born Monday.

"I'm just grateful everyone is OK," Dodd said. "That's what's important."

As firefighters used an ax to smash through windows on the second floor of Dodd's house, he reminisced about the "blood, sweat and tears" he had put into remodeling the house.

"I just put those windows in; they're brand new," Dodd said, adding they had planned to sell the house soon.

In the midst of all the commotion, Alvera Litsky of Donora calmly waited in her car, blocked in on Thompson Avenue by fire trucks and equipment. She was at Our Lady of the Valley Church, St. Dominic site, when the fire started.

"I was inside giving confession when Father Joe told me I better go because there was a fire," Litsky said. "I think they can all use our prayers now."

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