New Kensington fire victims start recovery after massive blaze
Troy Owen lost his business, Liberty Tax Service, in a massive fire that swept through New Kensington’s downtown business district Thursday, but he said he is going to be OK.
The first thing that came to his mind — after he learned that no one had been hurt — were his clients.
“There’s stuff in there that’s going to be challenging trying to replace for them, and I’m going do my due diligence and totally try and get that back on track,” he said. “I will be back up and running, and I will be servicing my clients in the very near future.”
Owen lost the building’s contents but said he will continue the business. He said he’ll either rebuild at the site or move elsewhere in New Kensington.
The fire, which was reported shortly before noon, damaged several businesses and apartments along Ninth Street and Fourth Avenue.
State police Deputy Fire Marshal Keith Sobecki said that as of Friday the cause was undetermined. The investigation continues.
“There’s so much damage and debris it’s hard to get into the building itself to further investigate,” he said.
The blaze started at 404 Ninth St., which is attached to the Liberty Tax Service building. Both buildings are owned by Owen.
“The Liberty Tax building, the back of it butts up against the side of 404 Ninth St.,” New Kensington Assistant Fire Chief Ed Saliba Jr. said. “There was an open breezeway between the two. When the fire started, it spread both ways. It spread to the Fourth Avenue building, and then it just pushed out the front of the Ninth Street side.”
Firefighters had the blaze under control shortly before 4 p.m., and cleared the scene around 7:30 p.m., Saliba said. They were called back at least three times to deal with “smoldering debris.”
“We returned to the scene three times to try to get this smoldering debris to stop, and it’s almost impossible because everything just piled up … and it’s hard to access it,” Saliba said.
At least three buildings — 872 Fourth Ave., 404 Ninth St. and 410-416 Ninth St. — are total losses, Saliba said.
Code Enforcement Officer Pat McGrath said the city roped off the buildings as well as the alley between Walt’s Deli and Sir James Printing.
He said the city will wait for the fire marshal and insurance companies to check the buildings out before they move on with any work.
“Once we get that we’ll know a little more,” he said.
The fire occurred a block over from the Corridor of Innovation, the city’s zone of economic revitalization. It encompasses Fifth Avenue between the 700 and 1100 blocks.
The Corridor is a joint effort of the city, Penn State New Kensington and the Community Foundation of Westmoreland County. Attempts to reach Penn State New Kensington Chancellor Kevin Snider and Mayor Tom Guzzo for comment weren’t successful.
Autumn Walker, a local business owner who is on the planning committee for the Wine & Beer Fest scheduled to happen in New Kensington on Friday, said the event will be collecting donations for people affected by the fire.
“We’re going to split the money evenly amongst everybody that was affected,” she said. “We’re hoping to bring the community together, to show support, rally behind them, and show them that they’re alone in this.
“I can’t imagine how alone and helpless they are feeling today. The numbness has worn off and they’ve got to start from scratch.”
Walker owns BoHo Bath & Bubbles by Apothecary Soap Co., which is near the fire scene. She said she was a mess Thursday, watching the fire burn.
“It’s simply heartbreaking,” she said. “There’s nothing you can do except pray it doesn’t get to the next building and then the next building.”
A GoFundMe fundraising campaign has been set up for one of the fire victims, Antoinette Brown, owner of Jorden Nicole’s Boutique and Quick Stop convenience store that were destroyed.
Owen’s brother, Aaron Moore, also started a GoFundMe to help him out. The account had raised more than $400 of its $5,000 goal as of Friday afternoon.
“He gives a lot back to the community,” Moore said, “so I think it’s only right that we as a community do something to give back to him.”
Owen is grateful for the efforts, but said the donations should go to people more in need, like those who lost their homes in the blaze. He has insurance on both buildings.
Red Cross spokesman Dan Tobin said it was helping three adults displaced from apartments there with food, clothing and temporary shelter.
“New Kensington, the community outreach and outpouring is overwhelming and phenomenal,” Owen said. “I’m just overwhelmed with all these different emotions right now, ‘cause I didn’t realize so many people cared.”
Madasyn Czebiniak is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Madasyn at 724-226-4702, email@example.com, or via Twitter @maddyczebstrib.