Natrona Heights fire ruled accident
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An electrical fire in Harrison, the scent of which still lingers inside more than a dozen businesses in Heights Plaza, has been ruled an accident by the Allegheny County fire marshal.
Twenty-eight crews battled the Dec. 17 blaze at the shopping center in the 1800 block of Union Avenue for more than three hours.
Deputy Fire Marshal Gene Stoffer said it ignited around 9:40 p.m. in the facade of a wellness clinic that had yet to open and caused approximately $10 million in damage.
Wind pushed the flames from the store in the middle of the plaza to the south end of the mall, where the UPMC Natrona Heights Multispecialty Center took the brunt of the damage and remains closed.
Jim Erb, a captain of the Natrona Heights Citizens Hose Fire Rescue, said damage to the other stores was caused by smoke, which funneled through the plaza facade.
Some businesses reopened almost immediately. Others are waiting on word from the plaza owner's insurance company as to whether the ceilings of their stores and the building roof will need to be replaced.
J&S Pizza closed for two days as professional crews cleaned the restaurant's surfaces, furnishings and ductwork.
Despite sitting next door to the wellness center where the fire began, the restaurant was spared fire or water damage, said owner Debora Malvone.
"It's pretty much a miracle," said Ms. Malvone, whose family has owned the eatery for 35 years. "It was dry as a bone when we came in. I was expecting at least water damage."
Joseph Marino Jr., Harrison zoning and ordinance officer, said the township worked quickly to provide the businesses with power, electricity and gas to get running again.
"The majority of those people, they were chomping at the bit to reopen," he said. "I believe the majority of the people that had their stores there are going to stay."
Quinio Barber Shop didn't wait for heat to return. Shop owner Vic Quinio said crews cleaned early the morning after the fire and he opened shop that day, which tends to be the busiest time of year with men seeking trims before Christmas.
"We were cutting hair with our coats on," he said. Mr. Marino said he anticipates most stores will reopen within the next month.
Rich Siefert, owner of Harrison's Bar and Grille, isn't as optimistic.
His business was left reeking of smoke, with surfaces covered in soot. Instead of immediately opening again, he waited to hear from the plaza owner's insurance company.
An adjuster told him it will likely take six months before the plaza can be restored. The facade will need to be redone, ceilings likely torn down due to the smoke damage and some parts of the roof replaced.
Even if he could open tomorrow, he said, part of the allure of his business is the ambience. A charred exterior and smoky interior would only detract from private parties and event bookings, he said.
To rent in the plaza, all tenants are required to have insurance. But Mr. Siefert's loss of revenue coverage won't come close to the money he will lose having to turn down bookings for six months, he said.
"It takes four years to build the business as it is and then you're back to zero," he said Friday as he met with the restaurant's manager, Tracy Helgert.
Ms. Helgert said she's in the process of telling employees, who took a hit without work over the holidays, to look for other jobs.
Drums-N-More, a music shop in the space on the other side of the wellness center, was forced to close at a time when sales usually peak.
"I had all my Christmas stock and didn't sell anything," owner Tom Lukasik said. He's confident he will be able to continue the businesses he started two and a half years ago, but will never recoup the sales he lost.
The store's interior suffered smoke damage, and every instrument and accessory had to be removed and professionally cleaned.
And like Mr. Siefert, Mr. Lukasik hesitated to set up his store again for fear that he would have to take his inventory down again if the carpets, ceilings and other parts of the building need to be replaced.
"We're waiting to see what the plaza management is going to do," he said.
Calls to the plaza owner, Steve Kogut, to confirm necessary restoration work were not returned.
First Published January 10, 2013 5:39 am