Charges filed against man shot by police in Bell Township

posted Sep 19, 2014, 1:23 PM by Joseph Gray   [ updated Sep 19, 2014, 1:23 PM ]

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Jason Bridge | Trib Total Media
A Pennsylvania State Police forensic services unit officer looks for evidence off of Stefaniak Drive in Bell Township after a police involved shooting the previous night. Photographed on Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014.



State police obtained an arrest warrant early Thursday for the Monroeville man who they say shot at four police officers Wednesday evening in Bell Township.

Joshua Benjamin Jesse, 41, of Tyrolia Drive, remains in critical condition with multiple gunshot wounds in an area hospital. Police have not said how many times Jesse was shot.

The warrant accuses him of four counts each of attempted homicide and aggravated assault against four Alle-Kiski Valley police officers. State police are heading the investigation.

The shooting happened about 7:20 p.m. along Stefaniak Drive in Bell Township after a 30-mile chase that began in Murrysville when police tried to stop Jesse so he could be taken for a mental health evaluation.

Police say Jesse led police on the chase from Route 22 and School Road in Murrysville, through Washington Township, and into Bell Township.

When police tried to stop him at Routes 819 and 66 in Washington Township, he turned his gray pickup onto Stefaniak Drive.

At a dead-end, Jesse jumped out of his truck, allegedly carrying a handgun, and was confronted by four officers from various local departments.

Trooper Stephen J. Limani said one officer fired a Taser at Jesse, who fired once from about 10 feet away, but missed.

At least three officers returned fire in self-defense.

Limani said Jesse received medical treatment at the scene and then was taken to a hospital where he is under guard by troopers.

Frank Stefaniak Sr., who lives nearby, said he was watching television in his home along Stefaniak Drive when he heard the shots fired.

“I was watching ‘Gunsmoke' — of all things — when I heard what sounded like two shots fired in rapid succession,” said Stefaniak, 84. “If (Jesse) shot first, the cops weren't messing around with him. I'm glad they got him, though, he could have come into any of these houses here with a gun.”

One house down, Frank Stefaniak Jr. and his wife, Lavina, were oblivious to the fracas taking place a couple hundred feet up the road. Neither heard the shots, and it wasn't until Stefaniak Jr. stepped outside to check on his elderly aunt and neighbor that he realized what had happened.

“It was like a Christmas scene with all the lights,” he said of the 30-or-so police vehicles that lined the normally quiet street. “I saw them loading the guy into an ambulance, I could hear him moaning in pain. He looked at me, and I just turned and looked away.”

Stefaniak Drive runs about 600 feet off Route 819 until it button-hooks at Beaver Run Creek and runs back against itself. The road's only four houses sit along that stretch of road along the Kiski River.

Jesse was cornered by police at the bend along the creek. Stefaniak Jr. said the outcome of the chase could have been different, had Jesse been more familiar with the terrain.

“I think he saw the creek and thought he had nowhere to go, so he got in a standoff there,” he said. “The creek is only ankle deep. He could have been on the other side like it was nothing. He wouldn't have even got his belt wet.”

Started in Monroeville

Monroeville police Chief Kenneth “Doug” Cole said officers were called to Jesse's house about 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Jesse's family members told police they were concerned about his welfare and that he may have been on his way to St. Marys in Elk County.

Monroeville police radioed area officers to stop Jesse. He was spotted in Murrysville and the chase began.

Cole said he couldn't say if police had been called to Jesse's Tyrolia Drive home before Wednesday.

News of the chase and shooting came as a shock to Jesse's neighbors.

Tyrolia Drive resident Judy Ribic, 71, described Jesse and his wife as “wonderful” neighbors who would help her and other older neighbors.

“That neighbor needed something,” Ribic said, pointing to other homes nestled in the cul de sac. “He'd always help you out.”

Ribic said she was aware that Jesse and his wife argued on Wednesday but, otherwise, they seemed happily married with two young sons and had recently celebrated an anniversary.

Ribic said Jesse had a hip replacement about a month and a half ago and had been spending a lot of time at home recovering. She thought he left town to go to his camp, where he would go to shoot guns, to get out of his house in Monroeville.

Staff writer Gideon Bradshaw contributed to this report. Chuck Biedka and Braden Ashe are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Reach Biedka at 724-226-4711 or Reach Ashe at 724-226-4673 or

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Autopsy: East Vandergrift man died of natural causes

posted Jun 25, 2014, 5:30 PM by Joseph Gray   [ updated Jun 25, 2014, 5:31 PM ]


Wednesday, June 25, 2014, 2:27 p.m.

A 59-year-old East Vandergrift man whose body was found in a barrel in the basement of his home died from natural causes.

Westmoreland County Coroner Kenneth Bacha said the specific cause of death for David F. Thomas has not been determined, however, there is no evidence of homicide.

“There were no obvious signs of trauma or foul play,” Bacha said.

Forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht performed the autopsy Wednesday afternoon.

Thomas' son. David Jordan Thomas, 31, remains in the Westmoreland County Jail in lieu of $55,000 bond on charges he put his father in the barrel and took about $3,400 from his bank account to pay bills and buy drugs.

According to an affidavit, police smelled a strong odor in the house at 301 Kennedy Ave. when they checked on the father's welfare and suspected a body was there.

When the younger Thomas took officers to the basement of the small frame house, police asked what was inside the blue 55-gallon barrel with sealed lid .

David J. Thomas told police it was some personal belongings from his grandmother. But the smell increased when he opened the container.

Police allege that's when the younger Thomas opened the clamp on the barrel to show them some of the items from inside.

In the process, the barrel tipped over and part of David F. Thomas's body slid onto the basement floor.

Vandergrift police Chief Joe Caporali said he saw the man's head and part of a shoulder and they instantly knew they were looking at a dead man.

During interviews with county detectives and Vandergrift police, David Jordan Thomas said his father, a disabled veteran, had been ill for years and that one morning he awoke to find his father dead and cold to the touch.

David J. Thomas said he carried his father to the basement and placed him inside some blankets. Later, he allegedly used his father's S&T bank card to buy the barrel that was delivered to the house.

Neighbors told police they saw the barrel delivered and a receipt for it was found in the home's kitchen.

Thomas' preliminary hearing is scheduled July 8

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East Vandergrift homeowner's body found in barrel in basement; son charged

posted Jun 25, 2014, 5:28 PM by Joseph Gray   [ updated Jun 25, 2014, 5:28 PM ]

Tuesday, June 24, 2014, 12:00 p.m.      

Police on Tuesday night charged a 31-year-old East Vandergrift man whose father was found about 10 hours earlier in a plastic barrel in their basement.

In a video arraignment, David Jordan Thomas was charged with abuse of a corpse, identity theft and a related access device charge involving the death of his father, David F. Thomas, 59.

Police think Thomas died at least two weeks ago.

But they don't know how he died or exactly when he died.

“We don't know yet if it was natural causes or foul play,” said Vandergrift police Chief Joe Caporali.

An autopsy is planned for Wednesday, and additional charges are possible, Caporali said.

Caporali said the dead man was a Navy veteran who was on disability.

Police said Thomas was found dead in a blue, plastic 55-gallon barrel about 10:30 a.m. in the house he shared with his son at 301 Kennedy Ave. near the train tracks.

According to a police affidavit, David J. Thomas told police and detectives that he “found his father dead and cold to the touch” and that he used his father's S&T bank card to order the barrel.

The barrel was delivered on June 10 or 11. The receipt was found in the kitchen.

Caporali said the suspect drove to an ATM machine in Allegheny Township, where he used a bank card to withdraw about $500 at a time — ultimately removing about $3,400. Officials didn't specify when those transactions took place.

At night court, Export District Judge Charles R. Conway ordered the suspect, who was at the Vandergrift police station, sent to the county jail in lieu of $55,000 cash bond pending a July 8 preliminary hearing.

The county's coroner's office assisted county detectives in the investigation.

Walking down the steps

The discovery unfolded when one of Thomas' neighbors called police to say they hadn't seen him in quite a while.

Acting on that tip to check on Thomas' welfare, police visited the 1½-story frame house and met Thomas' son at the door just after 10 a.m., police said.

Patrolman Bill Moore talked with Thomas's son.

In the affidavit, Moore said he smelled a foul odor when the younger Thomas opened the door.

In addition, Thomas told Moore that his father was at a VA hospital in Pittsburgh, but Moore checked and found that not to be true.

Moore summoned Caporali, his chief, to come to the house sandwiched between Norfolk Southern railroad tracks no more than 25 feet from the front door and a sewer construction project close to the small back yard.

Police said the younger Thomas invited officers inside to check on his dad's identification and medications.

David Jordan Thomas eventually led police downstairs and the odor “grew stronger.”

“We had a suspicion we would find him,” Caporali said.

“As we went downstairs we steeled ourselves,” the chief said. “You never know what you will find.”

Caporali said the suspect walked over to the barrel and opened the lid.

“We saw the top of a man's head and part of a shoulder,” Caporali said.

The body was wrapped in at least one blanket.

Neighbors said David F. Thomas has been on a military disabilty for many years and was ill.

One word was used time and time again to describe him: quiet.

Police said they can't recall disturbance calls at the small house.

Neighbors upset

News of Thomas' death rocked the community of about 800, who live in mostly modest but well-kept houses not far from the Kiski River.

At times, Thomas attended Mass at Our Lady Queen of Peace parish at the 400 block Kennedy Ave., according to the Rev. Michael Sciberras, the parish priest.

“I really don't know him. He was quiet,” the priest said. “I haven't seen him in a long time.

“I have never seen the son.”Neighbor Brian Butch, whose parents live next to the Thomas house, said he used to see Thomas walking his small brown-and-white dog. Thomas was “nice.”

Butch said he grew up with the elder Thomas, who as a youth lived one street away.

He said Thomas was ill so often that it wasn't unusual for him not to go outside for weeks. Then he'd walk the dog.

“You'd see him for a couple days and then not for a couple of weeks,” Butch said.

“No one can believe this,” said a tearful Mary Anuszek, who has lived in East Vandergrift since the 1950s and spent four years as mayor.The dead man's father, Andy, was once mayor.

“I served on council with him for 30 years,” said John Guerico, who lives across the tracks from the house.

“This is very sad,” he said. “I knew Andy's son was in the military, on disability, and sick for years.”

Chuck Biedka is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4711 or


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Vandergrift man charged in stabbing

posted May 27, 2014, 11:32 PM by Joseph Gray   [ updated May 27, 2014, 11:33 PM ]

About Chuck Biedka

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By Chuck Biedka

Published: Saturday, May 24, 2014, 1:16 a.m.
A fight in Vandergrift on Thursday night ended with one borough man stabbed and the other man in jail, police said.

Vandergrift police said Ronald Chad Garner, 40, of Grant Ave. was driving along Farragut Avenue when he saw David George Ash, 47, of Jefferson Street, pulled over and got out.

Garner yelled that Ash owed him $30, and Ash accused Garner of taking $140 from his wife seven or eight months ago, said Officer Nate Rigatti.

Police say Garner stabbed Ash in the left forearm. Garner then drove to the police station and reported that Ash had tried to stab him. Garner said he pulled out his own knife and stabbed Ash in self defense, police said.

When police found a knife in Ash's pocket, Ash said he grabbed it to defend himself against Garner who had just stabbed him.

Garner was arrested and charged with multiple counts of felony aggravated and simple assault, and a single count of reckless endangerment.

Ash was taken to Forbes Regional Hospital in Monroeville, where on Friday afternoon he was listed in good condition.

Garner was arraigned and taken to the Westmoreland County jail in lieu of $10,000 bond pending a preliminary hearing.

The hearing is scheduled for June 3 before Allegheny Township District Judge Cheryl Peck Yakopec.

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Truck rolls into house in Vandergrift

posted May 15, 2014, 6:57 AM by Joseph Gray

Posted on May 14, 2014 by Leave a comment        

© Hotshot Images by AKVNEWS/Paul R. Lowes/Staff Photographer

VANDERGRIFT, Pa. – A unoccupied pickup truck crashed into a house early Wednesday afternoon on Longfellow Street in Vandergrift. Police on scene said the vehicle appeared to be in neutral with the parking brake not fully engaged after it hit the house.

Rolling approximately 200′ down a slight grade, the vehicle jumped a couple steps on the front porch and stopped at the front door of the unoccupied house. Vandergrift #2 Fire department jacked up the front porch roof and installed temporary wooden supports to enable tow crews to remove the vehicle. It’s unknown if any charges will be file in the incident.

Vandergrift derailment fans fears over oil shipments

posted Feb 14, 2014, 3:00 AM by Joseph Gray   [ updated Feb 14, 2014, 3:03 AM ]

Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
Crews from Norfolk Southern inspect derailed tanker cars near the MSI Corporation building along First Avenue in Vandergrift on Thursday, February 13, 2014.

By Carl Prine and Chuck Biedka

Published: Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014, 8:30 a.m.
Updated 4 hours ago

Shortly before 8 a.m. Thursday, a boom so loud it sounded “like a big truck hitting something, but different” jolted Joe Franz of Vandergrift.

Moments later, Franz, 83, learned just how different. Twenty-one Norfolk Southern rail cars hauling explosive propane gas and Canadian crude oil derailed from at least 100 more tankers, skipping the track along the Sherman Avenue section of the Westmoreland County city before crashing into MSI Corp., a specialty metals factory.

County Emergency Management spokesman Dan Stevens said only one tanker car leaked. Norfolk Southern estimated about 1,000 gallons of heavy crude spilled. It did not catch fire.

No residents or rail workers were hurt. The nearby Kiski River was not befouled, and authorities ordered no nearby evacuations.

The Vandergrift crash reignited a larger debate nationwide over the safety of the increasing amounts of oil being shipped by the nation's railroads. Fiery freight disasters in Alabama, North Dakota and Canada in recent months have fueled those concerns.

In 2008, major rail companies hauled about 4,500 tanker car loads of crude, according to the Washington-based Association of American Railroads. Thanks to skyrocketing petroleum production in the Dakotas and Canada, the group estimated that trains transported more than 400,000 tanker cars of oil last year, many of them crossing Western Pennsylvania to reach refineries farther east.

“You're going to be the ones dealing with the spills that are inevitable, and the public isn't fully informed about the dangers. And a public that's not informed is going to lead to dead firefighters, because they're going to be the ones rushing to the scene,” said Fred Millar, an environmental organizer in Washington who is working with municipalities nationwide to stiffen local regulations and hike fees on oil haulers and the plants unloading the crude.

Association of American Railroads spokeswoman Holly Arthur strongly disagrees, telling the Tribune-Review that major freight carriers constantly plan for emergencies with first responders and share information daily about the most hazardous material shipments with community leaders nationwide. However, some deliveries are “security sensitive,” and that “information is not made widely available to the general public,” she said.

There was little chance of a catastrophe on Thursday, according to train and refinery officials contacted by the Trib. Although two of the derailed tankers carried lethal propane, neither leaked. The other 19 cars contained western Canadian tar sands oil bound for the NuStar Asphalt Refining plant in Paulsboro, N.J. They had passed through rail terminals in Chicago and Beaver County's Conway Yard before going off the tracks in Vandergrift.

NuStar officials said the oil inside was a heavy form of bituminous crude that flows slowly, especially in cool weather, which explained why so little spilled. Norfolk Southern spokesman Dave Pidgeon said the semi-solid goo was so thick, crews could remove it with shovels.

“When the oil came into contact with the snow, it congealed and made it easier to contain. It was a saving grace from the weather,” said Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection spokesman John Poister.

That kind of oil is too sluggish to sluice through pipelines, so it's shipped by rail. It's heavier and far less volatile than Bakken shale crude from North Dakota, the petroleum that sparked infernos in other states.

A July 6 runaway train crash in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, for example, ruptured Bakken oil, incinerating much of the downtown and killing 47 people.

Federal Railroad Administration spokesman Warren Flatau in Washington said his agency dispatched five field agents from its Region 2 headquarters to Vandergrift “to identify the root cause of the accident,” a process that could take up to nine months.

Flatau said that a key detail for investigators was the type of rail car that derailed. That's important because of the ongoing debate on Capitol Hill over the future of DOT-111-A tankers, which environmentalists like Millar say are poorly designed to withstand crashes.

A Senate hearing on the future of those tankers and other freight rail safety concerns had been scheduled for Thursday in Washington, but it was canceled by the winter storm blanketing much of the East Coast.

Washington also is debating the future of the proposed Keystone pipeline. Lighter or diluted forms of petroleum like the Bakken crude have been earmarked for shipment through the pipeline, designed to link oil fields in Alberta, Montana and North Dakota with refineries in Texas, Illinois and Nebraska.

Proponents say it will make jobs and push North America toward energy independence. Opponents contend it will hurt the environment and put citizens at risk of oil fires.

Carl Prine and Chuck Biedka are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Biedka can be reached at 724-226-4711 or, Prine at 412-320-7826 or


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DUI Suspect Teeters Vehicle on Backyard Retaining Wall – East Vandergrift

posted Jan 23, 2014, 6:52 PM by Joseph Gray

Posted on January 21, 2014 by Leave a comment        

© Hotshot Images by AKVNEWS/Paul R.Lowes/Staff Photographer 4:57 pm

EAST VANDERGRIFT, Pa. – UPDATE:  7:28 pm.  Law Enforcement Officer Joseph Gray of the Vandergrift Police department said the driver of the vehicle was one Patrick D. Eyrich, 55 of Plum Boro.  Eyrich failed the Intoxilyzer test.  Eyrich’s father,  who is approximately 88 years old and has dementia, had to be physically lifted from the vehicle by Officer Gray.   Eyrich was released from police custody.  Charges are pending in this incident.

Vandergrift and Allegheny Township Police were at the scene of a possible DUI incident in East Vandergrift around 3:30 pm today. 911 dispatch out of Westmorland County alerted police to an incident of a vehicle teetering over a wall on Steeler Way.

Police on scene said the driver was most likely intoxicated when he made a left hand turn onto Steeler Way and traveled up the slight grade terminating in a dead end street.

When the driver came to the dead end of the uphill grade street, he made a left hand turn and nearly drove over a retaining wall into a resident’s back yard 15′ below Steeler Way. The DUI suspect was taken into custody and transported by Vandergrift Police to Allegheny Township Police Station for a breathalyzer test. It’s believed the passenger in the vehicle was the suspects father who is an Alzheimer’s patient. It’s not known if any charges have been filed in this incident.

Vandergrift woman charged with stabbing ex-husband

posted Jan 23, 2014, 6:40 PM by Joseph Gray   [ updated Jan 23, 2014, 6:46 PM ]

Erin K. Baldwin, 40

By Chuck Biedka

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014, 12:31 a.m.

A Vandergrift woman was charged on Tuesday with attempted homicide and assault for allegedly using a dagger to stab her ex-husband in his neck and a lung on Thursday.

District Judge Jason Buczak ordered Erin K. Baldwin, 40, held in lieu of $100,000 bond pending a preliminary hearing.

According to bond papers, she will be sent to the Westmoreland County jail in lieu of bond unless she is admitted to a secured in-patient mental health facility to await the hearing.

Baldwin had been in Allegheny Valley Hospital, Harrison, since shortly after police arrived at 513-A Lowell St. early on Thursday.

At about 6:30 a.m., police found Baldwin and victim Dane E. Hawley, 41, on a porch of his residence. A bloody knife was on the floor between them.

Hawley had wounds to his throat and side. He was admitted to Forbes Regional Hospital, Monroeville, on Thursday and released on Monday after treatment for an injury to a neck artery and a punctured lung.

Westmoreland detectives and Vandergrift investigated.

Police said Hawley and Baldwin's 10-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter, who were in Hawley's custody, were upstairs when the attack happened.

Police said the couple has been divorced about 10 years and Baldwin was at the house to visit the children.

Hawley was cut by an 8-inch, double-edged dagger with skulls on the handle.

According to a police report, Hawley said he was attacked without warning and he was stabbed twice before he saw her with the knife in her hand.

In addition to attempted homicide, Baldwin is charged with two counts of aggravated assault.

Buczak ordered her held in the Westmoreland County jail in lieu of bond pending a Jan. 28 preliminary hearing by District Judge Cheryl Peck Yakopec.

Baldwin was arraigned Tuesday afternoon by Buczak because Yakopec was the night court judge.

Chuck Biedka is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4711 or

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Fatal crash suspect from Washington Township accused of DUI again

posted Dec 31, 2013, 10:56 AM by Joseph Gray   [ updated Dec 31, 2013, 10:57 AM ]


Chad Fravel, 26, of Washington Township.
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By Valley News Dispatch

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2013, 1:01 a.m.
Updated 6 hours ago

A Washington Township man awaiting trial on charges of vehicular homicide for an incident in 2012, in which police say he was driving drunk, was arrested again for alleged drunken driving.

Chad Fravel, 26, of Route 356 was charged with DUI on Thursday after Vandergrift police said they observed him failing to stop at a stop sign. When he was pulled over, police said they smelled alcohol. According to police, a blood test revealed Fravel's blood-alcohol content was 0.123, well above the legal limit of 0.08.

Fravel was on bond, awaiting a trial scheduled for February on charges he was drunk when the truck he was driving was involved in a crash with another truck in Oklahoma Borough in April 2012.

Robert Lytle, 51, of Avonmore died in the accident. A passenger in his truck, Paul Lytle, 35, of Pittsburgh, was injured. Fravel was seriously injured in the crash.

According to police, Fravel left a bar on Thursday and drove through a stop sign just before police pulled him over.

For the 2012 incident, Fravel is charged with homicide by vehicle while DUI and aggravated assault by vehicle while DUI.

WPXI-TV contributed to this report.

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Fire sweeps through Vandergrift neighborhood

posted Dec 31, 2013, 10:47 AM by Joseph Gray   [ updated Dec 31, 2013, 10:51 AM ]

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Bill Shirley | For The Valley News Dispatch
Firefighters battle a blaze at 519 Burns St. in Vandergrift, on Friday, Dec. 27, 2013. The fire destroyed or heavily damaged at least three houses in the West Vandergrift section of the borough. No one was reported injured.
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By Brian C. Rittmeyer   
Published: Friday, Dec. 27, 2013, 11:24 p.m.

A lack of water was preventing firefighters from stopping a fire that was devouring house after house on a tightly packed Vandergrift street on Friday night.

A fire that reportedly started at 519 Burns St. about 10:30 p.m. leveled that home and had spread to up to three others within two hours.

“They can't get water. My house is on fire,” Sherry Grazulis said as her home of 16 years at 521 Burns St. went up in flames. “I'm standing here watching my house burn. Where's the water?”

Grazulis' home and the house at 519 Burns collapsed.

A Vandergrift firefighter said one hydrant in the area was found to be broken.

He said there simply was not enough water, and multiple buildings were on fire when firefighters first arrived.

Firefighters were calling on the water company to boost pressure to the fire scene. Tankers were also being used to get water there.

Two firefighters were reportedly hurt as the effort to contain the fire continued. Electric lines were down in the area.

The Red Cross of Western Pennsylvania said it was assisting five adults and two children with clothing and food in the immediate aftermath of the fire.

A Vandergrift police officer said they had been called to 519 Burns St. earlier in the evening for a man illegally burning boxes outside near the house. The man, who police would not immediately identify, was arrested when he became argumentative with police and for public drunkenness.

Police released the man after they say he sobered up. He was said to be in custody again for disorderly conduct as the houses burned, but had not immediately been charged in connection with the structure fire.

Grazulis said she was in her bedroom and heard explosions from next door at 519 Burns.

“I looked out the window and the whole side of my neighbor's house was in flames,” she said.

Doug Bruce, who lives at the corner of Burns and Holland streets, was getting water to his garden hose, which he was using to squirt water at his roof as embers from the inferno across Burns fell onto his home.

“I was wetting my own roof down. It was getting bad. I don't think they had enough water pressure,” Bruce said on the porch of his house, soaked from head to toe in near-freezing weather.

“I used my own hose,” he said. “There was a lot of embers flying on my roof. I was afraid it would keep hopping from one house to the next.”

Bruce said his wife had looked outside and saw the house across Burns engulfed in flames. “They just couldn't get enough water,” he said. “If they had more water, it wouldn't be so bad.”

Fire company chiefs were fighting the fire and were not available for comment at press time.

Brian C. Rittmeyer is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4701 or
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