Fire recovery begins

HOLLIDAYSBURG – Daylight provided a new perspective for borough officials and residents surveying the damage from an hourslong fire Thursday evening that ripped through three apartment buildings and a barbershop along the 100 block of Allegheny Street.

Dozens of firefighters with 15 crews, and three more on standby, battled the blaze for more than eight hours in frigid temperatures while nearby homes and businesses were evacuated. Crews arrived on the scene about 3:45 p.m. Thursday.

Borough Fire Marshal and Phoenix Fire Company Chief Dave Zeek said he spoke with a state police fire marshal Friday morning who determined that the fire started in an apartment kitchen at 117 Allegheny St., where the roof and walls had to be pushed in – with help from an outside construction company – to prevent a dangerous collapse.

“It saved us a lot of work,” Zeek said. “We’d have been there all night long baby-sitting that.”

The exact cause of the fire is still unknown but appears accidental, Zeek said.

“At this time, there’s nothing suspicious at all,” he added.

Officials have spoken with property owner Lacey Cunningham, who owned four of the five buildings along the 100 block, excluding Buster’s Restaurant & Six-Pack, to discuss how to move forward with demolition.

Cunningham was unavailable for comment, but Zeek said the recommendation is that all four buildings be razed – although the final decision will be left to a building inspector.

Borough Manager Mark Schroyer said nearby buildings appeared to have escaped major damage, although Front Street Deli and surrounding residential buildings were without power for several hours.

Front Street Deli Owner John Rutter said he lost about $6,000 worth of food and another $6,000 in sales by being closed Thursday evening and all of Friday.

“I did have insurance, but they don’t cover spoilage,” he said. “I basically have to pay that out of my own pocket.”

Rutter said he’s pulling supplies from some other shops until a food shipment comes in Monday, and he’s hoping to reopen today.

“I’m hoping to open … but we might not open [Saturday]. We’re not sure. We’re banking on it,” he said. “Honestly, I can’t afford not to be open.”

Buster Brunner said he’s dealing with some smoke damage at the restaurant and six-pack store, but none of his supplies were damaged.

Both Zeek and Borough Mayor John Stultz said they are confident Dave Musselman, owner of Musselman’s Barber Shop, will reopen elsewhere in the borough.

“This has knocked Dave down, but it’s not going to knock him out,” said Stultz, adding that as a longtime customer, he’s personally invested in the shop reopening.

Musselman was unavailable for comment, but Zeek said he knows Musselman has gotten offers from nearby salons to use space so he can keep his customers.

In the meantime, borough officials are maintaining security along the cordoned-off block and are continuing to ask that residents avoid the area until demolition is scheduled and roads can be cleared of a thick layer of ice from fire hoses.

“We’re dealing with the physical aftermath of the damage and the fire itself,” Schroyer said.

A handful of residents braved the icy roadway Friday morning to get a closer look at the buildings’ remains from outside the American Legion, whose banner remained covered in ice and soot.

Borough Councilman Mark Shawley said he couldn’t remember the borough handling a fire as bad as Thursday’s.

Looking over the wreckage, Shawley said he was amazed no one was injured.

To better direct traffic and allow better access to businesses, crews reopened the 200 block of Allegheny Street to motorists Friday afternoon.

Zeek said it will take a few days to clear the block for pedestrians and motorists.

“I’ve had had large fires, but this was one of the worst, weather-wise,” Zeek said. “As soon as water would spray, frozen solid.”