Dec. 28--The Bielek family on Saturday tried to appreciate the little things they could recover from the burned out shell that once was their home on the unfortunately named Burns Street in Vandergrift.
Reaching between the Christmas lights and police tape around her front window, Carrie Bielek was able to pull out a few sooty houseplants she'd inherited from her grandmother. Her husband, Brian Bielek, discovered his new pair of still-white sneakers, and their 16-year-old daughter Lindsay found a pair of her boots.
But the family wasn't expecting to salvage much else after an overnight inferno destroyed their home and two neighboring houses in the West Vandergrift neighborhood.
Vandergrift Fire Department No. 2 Chief Steve Potoka said the house at 519 Burns St. was engulfed when firefighters arrived about 10:30 p.m. Friday. The flames soon spread to the houses on either side -- the Bieleks' at 515 Burns and 521 Burns, which is owned by Brian and Sherry Grazulis.
Potoka said no residents were injured.
Three firefighters suffered what Potoka described as non-serious injuries; one was struck by a hose coupling, one slid on ice and a third suffered chest pains. Potoka believed all had been treated and released by Saturday morning.
Potoka said the proximity of the houses, wind whipping the flames and low water pressure all made extinguishing the fire difficult. He estimated it was 2 a.m. Saturday before the fire was under control.
"We're talking just a few feet between some of these houses," Potoka said. "And we had some winds that provoked the fire."
As for reports of water-pressure problems, Potoka said it was largely due to the large amount of water numerous engines were trying to pull from the system all at once. Aside from one fire hydrant on Bryant Street that didn't work, possibly because it had frozen, Potoka said there was no systemic malfunction.
Potoka said a large number of fire companies from Armstrong and Westmoreland counties responded. They used a combination of fire hydrants and tanker trucks for water.
Gina Cerilli, spokeswoman for the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County, which provides water to Vandergrift, did not respond to cell phone and email messages seeking comment on the water-pressure issues on Saturday.
Vandergrift Council President Brian Carricato vehemently denied rumors circulating that problems with water pressure were somehow related to the borough's sewer-separation project, the first phase of which recently was completed in West Vandergrift.
"It is imperative that people know the sewer-separation project had zero to do with it. It's apples and oranges," Carricato said of the two, separate systems.
Fire deemed suspicious
Potoka still was on scene 12 hours after the fire began, helping Trooper Chet Bell, a state police fire marshal, sift through the rubble in what was left of the basement at 519 Burns St.
Potoka and Bell said the cause of the fire was under investigation; Potoka said it is considered suspicious.
Vandergrift police Officer Mark Lieu said he was called to 519 Burns St. about 5 p.m. Friday because the man who owned the house was burning boxes in a fire pit under his back deck.
Lieu declined to identify the man. Westmoreland County deeds records indicate the house was bought in July by Thomas S. Cassidy and Melissa A. Chambers; they could not be reached for comment on Saturday.
Lieu said he asked the man to extinguish the fire, which violated borough restrictions on open burning.
Lieu said the man appeared intoxicated and was taken into custody for several hours to "sober up" after he became confrontational with police. Lieu said the man received several citations for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct.
While police were dealing with the man, Potoka was called to put out the pit fire, Lieu said.
The man's fiancee and a couple family members who were visiting from out of state told police they were fed up with the man's drinking and were leaving, Lieu said. Neighbors described seeing a woman at the house packing up belongings and driving away Friday evening.