Four Pa. Firefighters Remembered 20 Years Later
BY TOM YERACE - The Valley News-Dispatch, Tarentum, Pa.

Posted: Tue, 12/20/2011 - 12:01pm
Updated: Tue, 12/20/2011 - 12:06pm
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As Sandra Bartolovich drove to work on a frigid Friday morning 20 years ago a fire lit up the sky over Brackenridge.

She didn't realize it then but the fire was at West Interiors, a furniture restoration business on Brackenridge Avenue, not far from Liberty Mirror where she worked.

What she also did not know was that her brother, Frank Veri Jr., was inside that building on Dec. 20, 1991.

"I was coming down the hill to work and the flames were just shooting out of that building," Bartolovich recalled. "I didn't even know he was there. I worked right down the block (at Liberty Mirror) and didn't know."

Her brother, at age 31, was the oldest of the four firefighters from Harrison's Hilltop Hose Company who were in the building when the first floor collapsed, trapping them inside. All four died.

Along with Veri were David Emanuelson, 29; Michael Cielicki Burns, 27; and Rick Frantz, 23; who made up the hose crew that entered the front door of the building in search of a fire that revealed itself suddenly and with tragic results.

Twenty years later their families are left with memories of them and thoughts about what might have been.

Rick Frantz

Like so many firefighters, that avocation came to Rick Frantz as a family franchise. His older brother, Don Jr., father, Don Sr., grandfather and cousin, Matt, were all in the fire service at Hilltop. Matt was the Hilltop chief at the time of the West Interiors tragedy.

He could not be reached for comment but Rick's mother, Amelia "Millie" Frantz gave a brief interview to the Valley News Dispatch.

"We come from a family of firemen and he loved doing what he was doing," she said. "He died doing what he loved to do."

Remembering the day, she said, "I listened to it on the scanner but I didn't know that they had died. My oldest son had to come home and tell me."

"They were all good guys," Amelia Frantz said.

Her youngest son, who had turned 23 just four days before the fatal fire, was buried on Christmas Eve in what was the largest of the four funerals,

Hundreds of firefighters, some clad in uniforms and many in turnout gear, filled the pews and stood lining the walls at Our Lady of the Most Blessed Sacrament Church in Harrison, for the Christmas Eve funeral Mass. Scores of fire trucks from fire companies across the state were either in the procession or lined the route to Mount Airy Cemetery along Freeport Road and Broadview Boulevard in Harrison.

"The holidays are hard for us," Amelia Frantz said.

Michael Cielicki Burns

Burns, who had attended Edinboro University, was working as a truck driver for 43rd Street Concrete and Asphalt Co. in Pittsburgh at the time of his death.

An avid softball player, hunter, fisherman and motorcycle enthusiast, he was preparing to write a new chapter in his young life.

Six months before the fire, Burns had purchased a brick house along Freeport Road in Harrison, where he planned to live with his high school sweetheart, Michele Malak, after their wedding planned for that August. Malak did not return a phone call from the Valley News Dispatch, seeking comment.

Burns was survived by his mother, Georgia "Bo" Burns Cielicki, his father, Stanley Cielicki, a brother, Robert, and a sister, Michele. None of Burns' surviving family members could be reached for comment.

A firefighter to the end, monetary contributions in Burns' memory went to the Hilltop Hose equipment fund.

Frank Veri Jr.

"He is on my mind every day," said his sister, Sandra Bartolovich. "I just wonder what he would be like as a 50-year-old and not a 30-year-old. I'm sure everyone else (other families) thinks the same. You wonder what they would be like."

Bartolovich, who lives in South Buffalo, said her brother was "a cornball."

"I'm sure he would have the same silly sense of humor that I talked about 20 years ago," she said. "He was 10 years younger than me so he was like my little boy. I used to be the baby sitter for him all the time."

Veri, who served as Hilltop's chaplain, left behind a wife, Sheri, a stepdaughter, Erica Zeiler, 9, and three children from a previous marriage, a daughter, Angela, who was 6 at the time, and two sons, Jason, who was 11, and Jesse who was 7 and now has two children of his own, according to Bartolovich.

She said she was happy to hear that Hilltop Hose was honoring their four fallen brothers with the rededication of a memorial that was held on Sunday.

"I think the dedication of those guys to serve the community is something that shouldn't be forgotten," she said.

"When his daughter, Angela, called and told me about this service, I just started to cry because it brought it all back," Bartolovich said. "We still miss him."

David Emanuelson

In December 1991, Dave and Kathy Emanuelson anxiously were awaiting a new addition to their family. Proud parents of 2-year-old daughter, Cara, the Emanuelsons were expecting their second child in the spring.

That child would turn out to be a boy who would bear the same name as the father he would never get to know.

Kathy Emanuelson, who remarried about 10 years ago and is now Kathy Emanuelson Hyschak, lives in Springdale Township. Her son is a sophomore at Seton Hill College and her daughter is learning how to be a dog groomer.

Hyschak said she remembers that day but much of it is a blur. In particular she recalls the compassion directed to her family.

"The outpouring of people and their helpfulness," she said. "People coming to the house and dropping things off like food."

But there is also the enormous loss.

"You take it one day at a time and I still do today," Hyschak said.

She met Dave Emanuelson while attending classes at Penn State New Kensington where he happened to be working in the library.

"He was a really good guy," she said. "If you needed help, he was there for you. He was kind of quiet."

They were married five years and Dave was working as a mechanic at Bouchat Buick in Harrison when he died.

"At that time, Christmas time, he was asking me what I wanted for because he was going to take my daughter and go Christmas shopping," Hyschak recalled.

"Every year, I put flowers at David's grave. It's my own, personal thing, close to the date when they died," she said.

For Rodger Emanuelson, the 20 years since his older brother died have been spent reminding people about him and his brother firefighters who died.

"It is a little overwhelming that it has been that long," Emanuelson said. "I think of him all the time. I bring him up. I don't let anybody forget him. It's 'Me and my brother David did this' or "Me and David did that.' I don't let people forget any of those guys."

Dave and Rodger were two of the five Emanuelson brothers who grew up in Harrison's Campton neighborhood, not far from the fire hall.

"Me and him were real close. We worked on cars together -- dune buggies, motocross bikes, anything mechanical we would work on and we would have fun doing it, too," he said. "Even bikes when we were younger."

"We were the best of friends," Emanuelson said. "We did a lot of things together and I miss all that."