Originally published at http://www.indianagazette.com on July 2, 2010.
It was the details that stood out, once the wall of heat and snap of burning walls subsided and the towering pillars of black smoke turned white.
A rocking chair on the front porch, spotless, seemingly untouched by the flames that had raged behind it. A red-painted front door closed tightly, the glass window inside it gone. A figurine of a prancing horse on a round table, dripping in a rain from fire hoses and surrounded by charred beams. A crisp but intact American flag, rescued and hung on the back of a firetruck.
Rustic Acres Furniture’s showroom and warehouse was gutted by a Thursday morning fire that turned the attic into an inferno before eating through the roof, sending beams and shingles crashing into the rooms below.
Assistant Fire Chief Chuck Kelly said the blaze caused more than $1 million in damage, and that the building and inventory were a total loss.
“It’s gone, everything’s gone. There’s nothing at all,” he said. The cause of the fire remains under investigation.
Firefighters from Indiana, Blairsville, Homer City, Cherryhill Township, Clymer and Northern Cambria responded to the scene with an Indiana Hazmat team after a passing borough police detective smelled smoke.
Detective John Scherf said he first thought he saw steam rising off the roof in the morning sunlight, but when he smelled smoke he turned around and called 911 at 7:57 a.m.
By the time firefighters arrived, smoke was pouring out of the building from windows, doors, air conditioning units and vents, and they couldn’t tell where the fire was because of all the smoke, Kelly said.
Penelec turned off power around 8:30, and the gas to the building was cut off five minutes later.
But when firefighters began breaking windows to get in, the flames broke through the roof and side of the building, sending flaming chunks down on the wood balcony and forcing firefighters back.
“A crew started in the front of the structure, but it turned to (expletive) real quick,” Kelly said. “It turned very, very bad real quickly, and I made the determination, we backed that crew out. They were only in there three or four minutes. I hate to say this, but if I’m going to lose the building, that’s fine, but I’m not going to lose my people.”
No one was hurt during the fire, he said.
Groups of neighbors formed across the street, taking pictures. A Rustic Acres employee watched the flames, and mourned the new shipment of furniture that had just arrived for a local apartment complex. The store was closed for the Independence Day holiday, he said.
Arlene Berkebile lives in the farmhouse across the street that was once part of the same farm as the barn that housed Rustic Acres, and said she remembers her children playing there.
“It’s a little, you know, sad to watch it go,” she said. “It’s been there a long time.”
She said several neighbors banded together in the late 1960s to turn the barn into a furniture store, Country Manor; David and Donna Reed – since divorced but still business partners and friends – bought it in 1999.
A furniture store in DuBois called Cozy Acres Furniture that caught fire in 2007 was not owned by Donna Reed at the time of the fire. She said the store, formerly known as Rustic Acres Furniture, was sold in 2001.
The building also housed the Indiana County Blind Association, which moved its commercial shredding operation into the basement after a 2006 fire destroyed its headquarters at Young Brothers Tae Kwon-Do studio at 402 N. Fourth St.
“It was just so, so numbing to have to go through this a second time,” Gail McCauley said this morning. She is president of the association’s board of directors. “It was devastating to stand there and watch that.”
The association’s offices and records were in the building, as well as a shredding machine valued at $18,000. McCauley said they did have insurance but not nearly as much as she would now like to have.
“We were probably underinsured,” she said.
The board has not yet decided what to do in the face of a second fire in four years, and McCauley said she was going back to what was left of the building to see just how bad the damage is.
And strangely, it was watching an elderberry bush burn that was the hardest for her. The bush was huge this year, and she was looking forward to picking all the berries for her elderberry jam from one place.
“To watch my elderberry bush burn just killed me,” she said. “(I said) well, no elderberry jelly from this bush … you have to have a little sense of humor here. If you don’t, you’re done for.”
David Reed was too stunned to answer questions or think about the future while he watched the flames consume his family’s business Thursday. But speaking by phone this morning he said they were “absolutely” going to rebuild.
“That’s my family’s livelihood. Hopefully (we’ll build) ASAP,” he said. He did have insurance, he said, though he wasn’t sure if it would cover the extent of the damage.
Firefighters stayed on the scene until evening, first pouring water on hot spots, then using foam. The Hope fire department and the hazmat team oversaw the foam operations, and a supplier from Ebensburg brought in another load of foam.
An air truck from Coral-Graceton came in to keep oxygen tanks replenished. And when most of the units packed up the 3,500 feet of hose line and headed back to their stations around 4:30 p.m., a tanker from Creekside came so one unit could keep water on hot spots until about 8:30 p.m.
West Pike opened again about 5 p.m., Kelly said, and officials from Penelec were working on restoring power to the area at the same time.
“It was a cooperative effort,” he said, mentioning dispatchers who kept up with his frequent requests for back-up supplies. “We just had tremendous help.”
Even Sheetz got involved, donating food to help keep the crews working all day, he said.
Kelly said the store did not have an alarm system to alert firefighters when the blaze began, and did not have a sprinkler system. The investigation into the cause of the fire has been turned over to fire marshal Trooper Timothy Frew, from the state police barracks in Indiana. Officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Fire and Explosives are assisting.
“They just want to make sure they cross their t’s and dot their i’s,” Kelly said.
Frew was not available for comment this morning.