Businesses, residents have to regroup after massive New Kensington fire
Troy Owen has owned and operated Liberty Tax Service along Fourth Avenue in New Kensington for 13 years. On Thursday, he watched all of his hard work go up in flames.
Owen’s business was one of several destroyed in a massive fire along Ninth Street and Fourth Avenue in the heart of the downtown business district.
“I’m definitely trying to wrap my head around it,” Owen said as he watched smoke billow out of the building. “It’s surreal.”
New Kensington Assistant Fire Chief Ed Saliba Jr. said two New Kensington firefighters had to be treated for injuries:
• A window sash fell onto the hand of a 40-year-old volunteer. He was treated at a hospital and was expected to be released.
• A 25-year-old firefighter was treated at the scene for heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation.
Red Cross spokesman Dan Tobin said it was helping three people displaced from apartments there with food, clothing and temporary shelter.
Saliba said the fire appears to have started just before noon in the Liberty Tax building, which is attached to the 404 Ninth St. building. Both are owned by Owen.
The buildings are connected at the back, and the blaze spread into another building before firefighters were able to stop it.
Another building and the site of Walt’s Deli had smoke and water damage, but neither was burned.
The fast-spreading fire created blankets of smoke that filled the streets.
“The ceiling, the roof and the floors have all collapsed, and everything’s just burning underneath itself,” Saliba said.
State police Deputy Fire Marshal Keith J. Sobecki said the cause of the fire was not immediately apparent.
“We are still investigating,” he said at 8 p.m. Thursday. “We know it originated in the tax office.”
Firefighters were still fighting flareups into the evening, and the fire rekindled about 11:45 p.m.
Saliba estimated there were about 60 firefighters from multiple departments on scene throughout the day.
He said the heat was a concern and firefighters were being rehabbed and then sent back in on a rotating basis to avoid overheating. Temperatures were in the low 80s, according to the National Weather Service.
Michael Marine lived in one of the apartments that was destroyed. He returned home Thursday morning to find the building on fire. He’s lived in his apartment for six years.
“I’m just getting back in town from Wexford,” he said as he looked on at the building in disbelief.
Antoinette Brown is a co-owner of three businesses in one of the buildings along Ninth — Jorden Nicole’s Boutique, Quick Stop grocery store, and Quick Print T-Shirt. All three were affected by the fire.
“I was sitting down to lunch, and someone came in and said, ‘Oh, there’s a fire down there by the shopping center,’ ” Brown said. “I asked, ‘Where at?’ and they told me, ‘As a matter of fact, I think it’s your store.’ ”
By the time Brown arrived, she said the building was engulfed.
Joe Calcagno is the owner of two of the buildings that have two storefronts and three apartments. He said he’s owned them for nearly 40 years and was insured. He had no idea what may have caused the fire.
“I feel bad for my tenants,” he said.
One of his business tenants was Janis Dortenzo, who owns Open Door Designs. She wasn’t at work at the time but received a call from her husband, who was concerned when he saw fire in the area.
“I saw them breaking through my windows,” she said of the scene when she arrived.
The Salvation Army was on scene providing drinks and food for firefighters and those affected by the fire.
Residents also helped by giving firefighters Popsicles and water.
Roxanne White, manager of the Family Dollar across the street, donated 10 cases of water for the firefighters.
“It’s just for my community,” she said. “I respect what they do.”
White said she heard sirens on the way to work.
“As soon as I pulled in the lot, I saw it all smoke up,” she said.
Nkwambeng “Roy” Nkeng owns a neighboring business that wasn’t damaged, but saw the events unfolding just down the street.
“I was (inside) at the time, and I saw people running outside,” he said. “So I came and saw the building with smoke coming out.”
Eugene Isler spotted the fire soon after it started and dialed 911. He said he smelled smoke and then saw where it was coming from.
“The curtains fell out of the window, the flag fell out of the window and then flames started shooting from the building,” he said. “Once the fire started in there, it was just a fiasco.”
Staff writer Chuck Biedka
contributed to this report.
Emily Balser is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Emily at 724-226-4680, [email protected] or via Twitter @emilybalser.