Fire Destroys Historic Pottsville, PA Building

A raging inferno destroyed a historic downtown Pottsville building on January 9, 2003, and left two other buildings with heavy smoke and water damage and put a firefighter in the hospital.

At 1:02 a.m., all eight city fire companies rushed to Lisa's Floral and Basketique at 102 N. Center St for a fire call. But despite nearly a half-dozen water hoses dousing the building and more than two hours of firefighting, the efforw was not enough to save a historic structure in the middle of the city's downtown district.

The fire also forced Humane Fire Company's volunteer Jason Conway to Pottsville Hospital after he suffered possible first degree steam burns and smoke inhalation, authorities said. Conway removed himself fron the disintegrating building around 1:30 a.m. as flames hustled through it. As he reached his company's truck outside First Union Bank, Conway quickly removed his fire coat and shirt and tried drenching and cooling himself under a heavy overflow valve on the side of Engine 30. Pottsville Emergency Medical Service crews took him to the hospital while the remaining numbers of fire crews were left with the task of dousing a blaze that could have destroyed half of a city block.

Initially, heavy brown smoke billowed from the front of the building while blasts of fire that looked like a gas furnace raged from the rear. As the flames kissed the building, wooden frames in the rear sizzled and cracked from the heat, ultimately destroying the buildings integrity.

No cause has yet to be determined in the blaze, said city Fire Chief Todd March, adding that he'll likely call on a state police fire marshal to assist in the investigation. March said it took firefighters 15 minutes to find the flames when they first arrived. He believes the fire started in the rear of the building, either on the first floor or basement. Heat from the flames could be felt mor than 100 feet away and it was actually a distant call from East Market Street that alerted fire officials to the scene as smoke could be seen from as far away as the Yorkville Burger King.

Dennis W. Spotts, Race St., said he saw the flames nearly 20 blocks away. There was a lot of smoke coming from the front, Spotts said after arriving only a few minutes after the fire call.

Paula Monler, Fairview Street also said the smoke woke her up in the middle of the night and saw a lot of smoke.

Meanwhile, the first chunks of debris, including wood and window glass, began falling to the street from two and three stories above, while firefighters dodged the dropping, and in some cases flaming chunks. Five minutes later and about the time Conway took himself out of the building, the brown smoke turned a dark charcoal color, which told Pottsville Fire Chief to get the firefighters out of the buildings. Several fire trucks sounded their air horns, alerting firefighters inside to get out.

As they got out and the strategy turned defensive rather than offensive, three ground hoses fought the fire from the front as a pair of hoses tried dousing flames in the rear.

Hampering the efforts was the absence of Phoenix Fire Company's 100 foot ladder truck, which would have easily reached the burning roof of 102 N. Centre St. The ladder truck is out of service. Still, the efforts of hoses in the rear of the building proved fruitless as the flames dominated the firefighting efforts

In its place, fire units from Saint Clair, Schuylkill Haven, Port Carbon and Minersville responded to the fire. As the flames reached power meters in the rear of the building, sparks shot from the wall-instaled outdoor meter and caused even the bravest firefighters to step back.

Wind carried flames and smoke to two buildings that border the flower shop, but firefighters were able to salvage those buildings-100 N. Centre St. ( an employment center ) and 104 N. Centre St ( Northwest Savings Bank ) - which provided a silver lining to the morning. Those buildings did not, however, go unscathed.

In order to reach fire that "was rolling" according to March, firefighters were forced to cut holes in the seilings looking for remaining flames. At 2:30 am. the sound of crashing debris re-ignited the fire as the roof of the flower shop collapsed. Fire hoses quickly drenched the flames from every possible direction until March said the fire was "contained" shortly after 3:00 a.m. this morning. All windows, including frames, were destroyed in an effort to preserve the building.

March said he believes the fire could have been worse, and possibly could have eliminated half of Pottsville's main business area. "Our guys did a heck of a job," he said. "This is a major fire, but it could have been a lot worse." The chief continued by saying because of the building's poor structure, firefighters could not reach the source of the fire.

But first and foremost was the safety of the firefighters. "You can't risk putting people in a building like that," he said. "When you put the big guns on it like that, you hope your hitting the fire."