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


Read more:
Follow us: @triblive on Twitter | triblive on Facebook

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

Read more:
Follow us: @triblive on Twitter | triblive on Facebook

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.
Daily Photo Galleries    


AlleKiski Valley Photo Galleries

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.

Read more:
Follow us: @triblive on Twitter | triblive on Facebook

Fire sweeps through Vandergrift neighborhood

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

1 / 4

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.
Daily Photo Galleries

AlleKiski Valley Photo Galleries

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
Read more:
Follow us: @triblive on Twitter | triblive on Facebook

Vandergrift man, 27, charged with molesting boy, 14

posted Mar 25, 2013, 10:06 PM by Joseph Gray   [ updated Mar 25, 2013, 10:07 PM ]

By Chuck Biedka

Published: Tuesday, March 26, 2013, 12:06 a.m.
A Vandergrift man exchanged sexually oriented text messages with a 14-year-old youth before having sex with the boy, Vandergrift police allege.Todd James Fusillo, 27, of the 700 block of Longfellow Street Extended, is accused of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, indecent assault and other charges.

In an affidavit, an officer said the 14-year-old's parents told police last fall about a text message allegedly from Fusillo that asked the boy to send a photo of his genitals for $50. The police papers also allege another message offered the boy $100 if he would stay over night in Fusillo's house.

Police filed a search warrant with Verizon and got copies of the messages.According to the affidavit, Fusillo confessed to police on March 12 after being asked to talk with them about the allegations.

In the affidavit, Fusillo said he and the boy touched each other sexually and had sex on several occasions between September and October when the boy stayed overnight at Fusillo's residence.

Fusillo is also charged with solicitation, attempting to get a sexual photograph of a minor, unlawful contact with a minor, criminal use of a cellphone and corruption of a minor.

He was arraigned Thursday night and sent to the Westmoreland County jail in lieu of $50,000 cash bond, which he later posted.

He was released pending a preliminary hearing April 2 before District Judge Cheryl Peck Yakopec.

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

Read more:
Follow us: @triblive on Twitter | triblive on Facebook

Vandergrift man to face trial for rape

posted Jan 30, 2013, 7:37 PM by Joseph Gray


By Chuck Biedka

Published: Wednesday, January 30, 2013, 12:31 a.m.
Updated 9 hours ago

A 29-year-old Vandergrift man was ordered Tuesday to stand trial for allegedly raping an ex-girlfriend last week.

Adam Corey McKendree, of 212 Holmes St. is accused of walking through the unlocked door of the woman's Vandergrift apartment on Jan. 24 about 9:30 p.m. and forcing her into the bedroom.

The alleged victim was the sole witness to testify at McKendree's preliminary hearing Tuesday.

The woman testified she hadn't been with McKendree for about three years and ignored text messages from him. The Valley News Dispatch doesn't usually use the names of alleged sexual assault victims.

On Tuesday, the woman testified that she called McKendree the morning of the alleged assault only to tell him that their dog had died.

She testified that he called back and said he had to see her; she said no, she had no interest because Mc-Kendree had punched and kicked her before she left him. She didn't press charges.

In a second phone call hours before the assault, the woman testified that McKendree needed a job and asked her help in obtaining a specific one. She declined.Then, at about 9:30 p.m., the woman said she had just changed into pajamas and was preparing to lock her door and go to bed when McKendree walked inside the one-bedroom apartment.

She testified that McKendree put his arm around her shoulder and pushed and pulled her into the bedroom before throwing her down onto the bed.

“I kept telling him I didn't want to do this and yelled at him, but it was like he didn't even hear me,” she testified, adding that she tried to push her knee into his groin, but failed.At one point, she fell off the side of the bed, but was pulled back by McKendree.

The alleged victim testified that after McKendree finished, he told her “he loved me and wanted a baby by me.”

He went into the living room; the woman went into the bathroom and later to living room to get her cell phone.

She sat on one side of the couch away from Mc-Kendree and sent a text to summon to a girlfriend. The friend texted that she would be there right away. McKendree slid across the couch in an attempt to read the texts.

According to the victim, the friend's boyfriend called the apartment and told McKendree to leave.

Allegheny Township District Judge Cheryl Peck Yakopec held to court rape and sexual assault charges against McKendree. Yakopec granted a prosecutor's request to drop an aggravated indecent assault charge.

Yakopec continued Mc-Kendree's bond at 10 percent of $75,000, meaning that McKendree can remain out of jail pending trial.

Yakopec ordered McKendree not to have any contact with the victim or any other witnesses. He must also remain in his father's house except for medical or court appointments.McKendree is scheduled to be formally arraigned in Westmoreland County Court on March 20.

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

Read more:
Follow us: @triblive on Twitter | triblive on Facebook

Vandergrift man wounded in apparent drug-related shooting

posted Nov 8, 2012, 5:54 PM by Joseph Gray

By Chuck Biedka


Published: Monday, November 5, 2012, 12:50 p.m.

Updated: Tuesday, November 6, 2012



A Vandergrift man was shot in an apartment late Sunday while trying to buy marijuana, police said.Police said the victim, Jamil Graham, 19, of the 200 block of Sherman Avenue, was in Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh on Monday morning in serious condition.


Police Chief Joe Caporali said Christopher J. Sgourakis, 27, of 128 Grant St., allegedly shot Graham once in the abdomen at about 10:45 p.m. after the victim and another man went to Sgourakis’ apartment.


According to an affidavit, Sgourakis said he opened the door for Graham and a man he didn’t know to sell them marijuana.


Sgourakis told police the men followed him into the kitchen and then started to hit him. He said he ran into his bedroom, grabbed his pistol, and fired a shot.


Police said an empty 9 mm casing was found on a kitchen sink counter.


Although bleeding heavily, Graham left the apartment with help from the other man, then collapsed on the sidewalk in front of his Sherman Avenue apartment, about five blocks away. Graham was flown to AGH.


Caporali said they found the pistol they believe was used in the shooting, as well as glass jars and a can with about 2 ounces of marijuana and drug paraphernalia, including a water bong and glass smoking pipes.


Police said the pistol was registered to Sgourakis.


Sgourakis faces two counts each of aggravated assault and reckless endangerment, plus several drug charges.


Following a video arraignment Monday morning, Allegheny Township District Judge Cheryl Peck Yakopec ordered Sgourakis held in the Westmoreland County jail in lieu of $50,000 pending a preliminary hearing.


A preliminary hearing is scheduled for next Tuesday.


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



Read more:

 Follow us: @triblive on Twitter | triblive on Facebook

2 charged with setting van fire in Vandergrift

posted Oct 26, 2012, 4:20 AM by Joseph Gray   [ updated Oct 26, 2012, 4:22 AM ]

By Chuck Biedka

Published: Saturday, September 29, 2012, 2:06 a.m.
Updated: Saturday, September 29, 2012 

VANDERGRIFT — Surveillance video shows two men setting a van on fire, which endangered people inside a nearby tavern, police say.

According to police, those men are Randal Shondelmyer, 43, no address given, and Lewis Beck, 45, of the 200 block of Bryant Street, Vandergrift. Both are charged with arson and two related charges.

The men are accused of setting on fire a 1994 Dodge Caravan parked at 614 Hancock Ave. on Wednesday afternoon.

That’s the address of the Hancock Inn, a tavern that also has apartments on the second floor.
The arrests became public when photos of the men appeared on the West-moreland County jail’s list of prisoners.

In arrest papers, Vandergrift police allege the van’s owner was trying to put out the flames when a police sergeant arrived just after 4 p.m. The two kept the flames at bay until firefighters arrived.

The tavern owner has surveillance camera operating to cover the outside of the building.

Police say the camera shows Shondelmyer and Beck talking at the end of the parking lot, exchanging something, and then carrying white bags at they walked up to the van.

Beck served as a lookout, police say, when Shondelmyer opened the passenger door and placed the bag inside. The video then shows flames starting and the men walking to the tavern door and entering, police allege.

The state police fire marshal’s office also is investigating.

The men were arrested at Beck’s residence.
In addition to arson, the men are charged with risking a catastrophe and reckless endangering another person.

Shondel-myer and Beck were in the county jail in lieu of $50,000 percentage bonds pending preliminary hearings scheduled for Tuesday by Allegheny Township District Judge Cheryl Peck Yakopec.

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

Read more:
Follow us: @triblive on Twitter | triblive on Facebook

Arson fire heavily damages Vandergrift service station

posted Oct 26, 2012, 4:16 AM by Joseph Gray


By Liz Hayes

Published: Sunday, September 23, 2012, 12:10 p.m.
Updated: Wednesday, September 26, 2012 

VANDERGRIFT — A family accustomed to responding to emergencies experienced one of their own early Sunday when suspected arson gutted their service station.

Joyce Kochka said she and her husband, Paul, received a call about 1:45 a.m. that their business, Kochka’s Towing and Car Care Service, was on fire.

They arrived to see flames shooting from the building at Farragut and Sherman avenues, across from the Vandergrift Bridge. The Kochkas also operate a Citgo gas station at the site.

“It was blazing,” said Joyce Kochka, 69.

The state police fire marshal from the Greensburg barracks, Trooper Seth Helman, said in a press release Monday that the fire at Kochka’s was arson. The release provided no information on how the fire was set, but estimated the damage at $600,000.

The Kochkas said officials told them the fire appeared to have been set in one of the four garage bays. Joyce Kochka said money was stolen as well.

Randy Dunmire, assistant chief at Vandergrift No. 1 Volunteer Fire Department, said about 75 firefighters from 10 companies responded; many were on the scene until 7:30 a.m. One firefighter suffered a minor injury that was treated by medics on-site.

Dunmire said the fire spread from a central garage bay into the ceiling and through a 4-foot void to the shingled roof, which had been added onto the structure’s original flat roof. Because the gas pumps were shut off and not near the building, Dunmire said they didn’t present a challenge to firefighters.

‘They took his heart’

Paul Kochka, 75, started the business about 50 years ago.

“They took his heart. That’s what he said,” Darlene Kochka said of her father-in-law.

Although son Greg Kochka, 51, has taken over day-to-day oversight of the business, Joyce said she manages the books and Paul is there daily despite suffering a stroke a year ago.

“That’s what he likes to do,” she said. “He won’t retire. This is his baby.”

Distraught by the apparently intentional destruction, the Kochkas said they were heartened by the response of the community.

A few dozen employees, friends, neighbors, business associates and family members converged on the service station Sunday morning. They began removing debris, hauling out inventory that could be salvaged, pulling tarpaulins over the gaping roof to prevent rain damage and offering comfort.

“All of Greg’s friends are here,” said Darlene Kochka, Greg’s wife. “The employees are here, too.”

Kochka’s employs 10 people, between the towing service, the garage and the gas station.

“They’re all out of work right now,” said Tammy Eckman, Joyce and Paul Kochka’s daughter. “They’ve been here all night. Friends are really kicking in.”

Eckman said the original building is constructed of concrete block and remained intact. Joyce Kochka’s second-floor office, added in 1992, was heavily damaged.

Greg Kochka — recently back to work after he was seriously injured in a January car accident while on a service call in Maryland — braved the flames to save one of the business’ 10 tow trucks. Another towing rig was destroyed.

The Kochkas said no customer vehicles were damaged; none was inside the garage.

Darlene Kochka said firefighters managed to keep the flames from spreading to a neighboring rental house on Farragut Avenue that she and her husband own. The building is so close to the service station that the rain gutters touch.

The Kochkas said they will rebuild.

“They’ve already started.” Joyce Kochka said.

Liz Hayes is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4680 or

Read more:
Follow us: @triblive on Twitter | triblive on Facebook

1-10 of 37