Shamokin fires considered suspicious
SHAMOKIN - Two fires - 15 hours and three blocks apart on North Shamokin Street Thursday - have been ruled suspicious by police.
They aren't sure if the incidents are related, but police said Friday they are actively pursing leads.
"Every effort is being made by this department to catch whoever did this," Shamokin City Police Chief Edward Griffiths said Friday. "Every officer is working on it, and I encourage the public if they have any information, no matter how insignificant, to please contact us." He said callers can remain anonymous.
City police fire investigator Raymond Siko II said the fires were started from materials ignited inside the buildings.
"The cause of both fires is undetermined, but we are confident in both points of origin," Siko said. "We have gathered evidence from both scenes."
The first fire occurred at 4:15 a.m. at a vacant three-story brick apartment building at 725 N. Shamokin St. That fire was easily put out and damage was limited to the room where the burning debris was found.
Siko said there were no signs of forced entry, but it's possible the person or persons who started the fire gained access through an unsecured door. A damaged door is believed to be the same way someone entered the former Hardshell Cafe, where the second fire of the night occurred.
"Looking at the scene last night and today, we have discovered a damaged door in the rear of the building that was unsecured," Siko said. "We believe that is how they got in."
An employee from a nearby social club told authorities she spotted smoke coming from the building while locking up for the night, then made eye contact with a young male and two females standing near the corner of the building before they "scrambled away."
It was the third fire in the 700 block of North Shamokin in the past five months. First, adjoined buildings at 721-723 and 717-719 N. Shamokin St. were damaged by fire on Sept. 5. Eight days later, a second fire broke out in the rear of 717 N. Shamokin St., which eventually collapsed from damage and was torn down.
Those fires are also under investigation.
Thursday's second fire occurred at 7:15 p.m. at the former Hardshell Cafe at the intersection of Shamokin and Shakespeare streets.
Two girls, Emily McHale and Sonya Bugg, were walking on Shamokin Street when they noticed smoke coming from the vacant building. They walked to the nearby police station and alerted Siko.
"I can't give them enough credit," Siko said Friday.
He and Cpl. Darwin Tobias entered the building to assess the situation.
"There was smoke in the first floor and flames in the basement," Siko said.
When briefing arriving fire chiefs, Siko and Tobias officers warned them about five large cylinder-like tanks they saw in the basement.
"We weren't sure if they were oxygen or acetylene," he said Friday. "As it turns out, all the tanks were empty."
Police assisted Shamokin, Coal Townships and Mount Carmel firefighters setting up to extinguish the blaze.
"We started with an aggressive interior attack, with one crew going in the front door and another in the rear of the building," said Shamokin Deputy Fire Chief Jason Zimmerman. "They found heavy fire in the basement."
Because of the age of the building, a decision was soon made to change tactics.
"All crews were pulled out of the building after 10 minutes of attack, and we switched to a defensive operation," Zimmerman said.
A second alarm brought crews in from Overlook, Atlas and Kulpmont to assist city and township firefighters. In 16-degree weather, five master streams distributed water from four hydrants, causing streets and sidewalks to freeze. A city street department employee scattered rock salt to fight the problem.
The blaze was under control at approximately 10 p.m. and firefighters were back in service at 10:45 p.m., but several firefighters stayed overnight to watch for rekindles.
Siko said the cause is undetermined, but the point of origin was the basement.
Firefighters were called to the scene at about 8:30 p.m. Friday for a rekindle, which was quickly brought under control.
The former bar at 422 N. Shamokin St. is owned by Stephen Bednar, of Shamokin. A neighboring structure, 420 N. Shamokin St., the former home and storefront church of Pete DeRito, is owned by Bednar's son, Jarrod.
Siko said it is too early to tell if the two fires are related, but the investigation continues.
"If anyone has any information, please contact the police department," Siko said.
Two firefighters hurt
Zimmerman said one firefighter suffered a knee injury Thursday night after a car drove over a hose he was hooking to an engine and pulled it up the street, sweeping his legs out from under him.
Another firefighter suffered a back injury in the fire at Sunbury and Shamokin streets, while he was removing plywood from a second story window. Both injuries were treated at the scene.
Engines from Sunbury and Upper Augusta Township were also dispatched to Shamokin on a transfer assignment, and different organizations and individuals helped out as well. Sunbury's Americus Rehab assisted with a shelter and hot beverages, Zimmerman said, and the nearby Knights of Columbus served coffee and opened its building to firefighters so they could warm up. Also, James Pizza delivered food and many residents brought hot beverages.
Siko expressed appreciation to the firefighters.
"I can't give enough credit for the Shamokin Fire Bureau and the surrounding crews. It was because of their training this fire was not worse than it was," he said. "They were also critical in the beginning stages of my investigation."