Pittsburgh 'mainstay' destroyed by blaze

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Beneath the cheerful sign for the auto-repair business on Broadway Avenue in Beechview that he had owned for more than two decades, Palmo Cicchino dabbed away tears Tuesday afternoon.

The sign, which shows a cartoon likeness of Mr. Cicchino wearing coveralls and clutching a hammer, was blackened by smoke from the Monday night three-alarm fire that ripped through P.C. Auto Repair, which also housed a paint booth and body shop, with several of his customers' cars inside.

A bag with a meal from McDonald's was in his hand, but Mr. Cicchino, 56, a native of Molise, Italy, said his stomach was sick before he headed inside the ruined shop.

"He's a community guy," said Josh Fandry, 34, who dates Mr. Cicchino's daughter, Lucia, and was on hand to help Mr. Cicchino deal with insurance agents and building inspectors.

"He came to this country in '79 with nothing. He was trying to live the American dream and watched it all go up in smoke," she said.

City arson detective Michael Burns said the fire, which nearly 50 firefighters battled for about an hour and a half before bringing it under control, began in a flue or vent stack for a fireplace in the building's basement. He said the fire traveled up the back of the building, which has a wood frame, and then burned straight across the roof toward the front building, which is concrete.

"The flue wasn't checked yearly, as it should be," Detective Burns said, adding that no criminal charges are expected.

It wasn't immediately clear if the building would have to be razed.

"We'll condemn it," said Richard Weaver, a city demolition inspector who evaluated the building Tuesday. "He'll get together with his insurance agent and determine what direction he'll go."

Passers-by stopped to chat with Mr. Cicchino and offer an embrace, words of encouragement or a helping hand the day after the fire, which shut down Broadway Avenue for much of the night and drew spectators into the chilly night air. He and several others were in the building when the fire was discovered.

Fred Abbondanza, 73, of Dormont, a longtime friend of Mr. Cicchino who also immigrated to the U.S. from Italy, was at the shop to help his "buddy" pick through the rubble.

"I feel bad for him," Mr. Abbondanza said. "He helped a lot of people. If they didn't have enough money, he'd give them a break."

Mr. Cicchino is a "fixture" for Beechview, which has been attempting to reinvigorate its central business district for years, said Phyllis DiDiano, a family friend who is also president of the Community Leaders United for Beechview and board member of the Beechview Merchants Association.

"That's the kind of person you want to do business with. You know he's going to be here tomorrow," Ms. DiDiano said. "We've been trying to rebuild for many years. Palmo is a mainstay and has weathered the good and the bad. ... I hate to see something like that happen to somebody who works that hard."

Mary Ann Meyer, who lives one street away from the shop and saw the towering smoke and flame from the fire, has lived in Beechview for 49 years and said her daughter used to groom Mr. Cicchino's small dog. She hopes he rebuilds his shop.

"He's very good for the community ... everyone I know likes him," she said.

Robert Zullo: rzullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3909. Liz Navratil contributed.

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