Fire destroys building, leaves dozen homeless

Program for recovering substance abusers lost in Washington

July 24, 2005 12:00 AM
By Ann Rodgers Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A suspicious fire in downtown Washington, Pa., yesterday left an extended family of 12 homeless and destroyed the Sunlight Club, which for nearly 20 years had been a refuge for thousands in recovery from alcohol and drug abuse.

Steve Mellon, Post-GazetteYolanda Dawson, 15, holds niece Aaliyah Dennis, 1, while firefighters clean up after a blaze that destroyed the Dawsons' home and damaged other structures on North Main Street in Washington yesterday morning.

"There are so many people who have been affected by this fire. They're fragile, and they're going to need a lot of help," said Delores Hutchins, whose husband, Les, is president of the Sunlight Club and a lay pastor to the four-generation family left homeless after the morning fire broke out in their two apartments above the club.

At least 200 people a day attended 12-step meetings at the club, said Les Hutchins, lay pastor of the John Wesley United Methodist Church in Washington.

Washington Mayor Ken Westcott pledged police action if the fire is ruled arson.

"Obviously, at this point, it is suspicious,'' Westcott said.

Investigators from the state police fire marshal's office were on the scene yesterday.

The Washington Fire Department received a call shortly before 6 a.m. for a blaze at 81-83 N. Main St. Several firefighters from North Franklin, Chartiers, Canonsburg and Canton responded.

Initially, five people were trapped in one of the apartments, but firefighters led them down a front stairway, said Fire Chief Linn Brookman. The blaze was extinguished at 9:40 a.m.

Charles E. Kurowski, a candidate for county judge, owned the Oliver & Wiley building that housed the Sunlight Club, second-floor apartments and his campaign headquarters.

He estimated damages at $300,000 and said he planned to rebuild.

An empty store just north of the Sunlight Club sustained smoke and water damage, and firefighters were investigating reports that water had damaged a dialysis clinic downhill from the fire, in the basement of the Millcraft Center, Brookman said.

The Sunlight Club filled a vital role in the community, the mayor said.

"These people need that support. We don't want them lost to the street for a couple of weeks trying to find a new home. It's important to get them a new place," Westcott said.

The Vineyard Church of Washington and Uptown Theater, which are across the street from the Sunlight Club, have offered space for meetings.

The club was a charred ruin yesterday morning, with sunlight showing through the shattered upstairs front windows because the roof had collapsed.

Candace Elliott, 16, whose family lived in one of the apartments, stood on the sidewalk cradling a box turtle that a firefighter had rescued from beneath her bed. She knew the fire spread quickly, she said, because she had awakened at 5:30 a.m. and there was no hint of smoke. When her sister awakened her less than 30 minutes later, she said, the apartment was filling with smoke.

A family dog died in the blaze, but a snake and lizard survived along with the turtle.

The apartment directly above the Sunlight Club was occupied by Clifford Moore, 57, a construction worker whose disabled wife was away on a retreat. His grandson, the grandson's girlfriend and Moore's great-granddaughter were in that apartment and escaped.

He said the Sunlight Club had been as much his home as the apartment he moved into two-and-a-half years ago.

The apartment above Kurowski's headquarters was occupied by Moore's stepdaughter, her husband, their three teenage daughters, the fiance of one of the daughters and that couple's 1-year-old daughter.

"I'm just grateful that we were able to get everybody out. I look at my little granddaughter and I couldn't imagine what I would do if something were to happen to her," said James Elliott, 42.

His stepdaughter, Yolanda Dawson, 15, said she was awakened by noises, smelled smoke and roused the rest of the family.

"They thought I was joking because I'm a joking kind of person. My mom and everyone just stared at me," she said.

They were jolted into action by her brother, who had been staying next door, pounding on an outside window screaming at them to get out, and by the sight of her grandfather on the roof.

The Red Cross provided the family with temporary emergency shelter.

The Elliott-Dawson family had moved to Washington from Ohio four months ago with few belongings and had settled into the apartment a little over two months ago, said Tiffany Dawson, 16.

"We had nothing, and we had to start all over. I guess we have to start all over again," she said.