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Investigation continues at Vandergrift fire scene

posted Nov 18, 2016, 9:48 PM by Joseph Gray

Fire investigators discuss Friday night's blaze at Carpenter's Cafe on Longfellow Street in Vandergrift on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2016.
• Fire damages commercial building in Vandergrift

Fire investigators Saturday sifted through the rubble where a fire gutted two buildings Friday, including The Carpenter's Café at 229 Longfellow St., while the cafe's owner salvaged what little was left.

The fire started about 7 p.m. Friday, after the cafe closed, on the second floor, then spread to an adjoining building at 231 Longfellow St., a former candy store.

Fire officials haven't pinpointed the cause, said Steve Potoka, chief of Vandergrift Volunteer Fire Department No. 2. A Westmoreland County fire marshal expects to have results Monday.

Both buildings are total losses and will have to be torn down, Potoka said.

Firefighters battled the blaze for more than eight hours. They still were dousing hot spots just before 5 a.m. Saturday, Potoka said.

After working the blaze for a short while, firefighters lost water pressure in nearby hydrants and had to bring in tanker trucks — at one point numbering 21 from five counties — to haul water from the Allegheny Technologies Inc. mill in Vandergrift and several other locations, he said.

Vandergrift had to rely on pumper trucks because the town's aging water lines don't carry enough water to extinguish such a large blaze, according to borough officials and the borough's water supplier, the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County.

Friday night, firefighters used four aerial fire trucks at the same time, causing the water pressure to drop, said Brian Carricato, borough council president. The newer fire trucks pull more water per minute, which drains the lines more quickly, he added.

“Longfellow Street has a smaller line, and there is not the volume of water to sustain that many aerial trucks at the same time,” said Tom Ceraso, assistant manager of the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County.

According to Ceraso, the authority and the borough have discussed this problem before and the plan has always been to use pumper trucks to supplement public water to fight large fires.

But lack of water pressure wasn't the primary reason the fire burned through the night.

The fire took so much time to extinguish because the cafe building collapsed in on itself, said Potoka.

“There were hard-to-get-to hot spots,” he said. “We didn't want to risk our firefighters going in.”

On Saturday, nothing but blue sky was visible through The Carpenter's Café second story windows.

Piles of charred rubble lay in the parking lot.

The only cheer left was a perfectly preserved green decal of the diner's name in the front window.

“This was my retirement,” said Steve Tatar, 50, of East Vandergrift, a carpenter who said he bought 229 Longfellow cheaply and rehabbed the building for the diner that has been operated by his girlfriend for more than four years.

“I guess I'll still be working in construction longer,” Tatar said.

Tatar's family and friends helped out Saturday. A large container on wheels was in place for debris.

A large black tow truck with custom-painted purple flames on its fenders from Big Dawgs Performance auto repair nudged the trash bin closer to the front door of the cafe Saturday morning.

“You see devastation like this, and it's hard to recover,” said Brian Swartzlander, owner of Big Dawgs of Vandergrift. “We don't have many businesses left in town. It's such a loss.”

Spared during the blaze were three houses at 233 Longfellow St. that are next to the former candy store.

Neighbor Michael Calderazzo, 64, was taking a shower when his sister banged on the door to tell him to evacuate Friday night. He saw flames shooting out of the two-story cement-block building.

“I was afraid my house would catch fire,” he said.

But it didn't. Firefighters watered down the exteriors of nearby buildings to protect them.

However, there was some structural damage to the exterior of the homes from concrete blocks that fell from the crumbling facade of the candy store onto Calderazzo's house and yard.

Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or