Firetruck sale like no other

Dozens of old vehicles go on the block

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V.W.H. Campbell, Post-Gazette photos

More than four dozen firetrucks from the estate of Sullivan D'Amico, founder of Pechin's Shopping Village in Fayette County, will be sold by sealed bids beginning this week. Bids will be opened March 22.

By Mike Bucsko, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

DENBO, Pa. -- Lined up one by one like old soldiers dressed in red and white uniforms, dozens of decommissioned firetrucks await their fate in a parking lot along the Monongahela River near this tiny Washington County community.

More than four dozen of the old firetrucks, some dating back more than 70 years, will be part of a sealed-bid auction this week in what could be the largest mass firetruck auction ever. The bids will be opened March 22.

The trucks are among 135 fire vehicles collected over at least three decades by the late Sullivan D'Amico, founder of Pechin's Shopping Village in Fayette County. Mr. D'Amico died in February 2005 at the age of 87.

"This will be the granddaddy of all auctions," said Jim Derstine, president of the Pennsylvania National Fire Museum in Harrisburg. "Most of the time, when someone's collection goes up, there's three or four firetrucks. This is huge out there."

Mr. D'Amico bought the firetrucks and hundreds of vintage automobiles with an eye toward opening a museum, but time ran out before he could accomplish his goal, said Ray Butchko, co-owner with his wife, Sherrie, of Higinbotham-Butchko Auction Service Inc., the Dunbar company conducting the auction.

"Mr. D'Amico had it in his mind that he was going to turn this place into a museum," Mr. Butchko said. "But, like many of us, Mother Nature caught up to him first."

Mr. Butchko and his wife did appraisals of all the vehicles in Mr. D'Amico's estate, but he declined to disclose the appraised value for legal reasons. Mr. D'Amico's estate has not been finalized in Fayette County Common Pleas Court.

The firetrucks slated for auction are stored at Pechin's Denbo Marina, an old lumber yard Mr. D'Amico bought and converted. The business was one of hundreds of properties which are part of Mr. D'Amico's considerable estate, which he amassed after he began his Pechin's empire in his basement in the late 1940s.

The trucks are stored outside on the marina property and inside a concrete-block storage building. Dozens of other firetrucks, slated for auction in August, are stored nearby in another building.

The firetrucks are from towns from Altoona to Zelienople and include some from outside Pennsylvania. Most of the firetrucks are from towns in Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland counties, such as Brownsville, Isabella, Monongahela, Smithton and West Newton.

There are also a few from Allegheny County, including a white 1947 American International truck from the Heidelberg Volunteer Fire Department.

"You've got just about every town around here represented with firetrucks," Mr. Butchko said.

There is considerable interest in firetrucks and fire apparatus nationwide, and the auction has attracted the attention of collectors. The Pennsylvania National Fire Museum is one of dozens of similar facilities nationwide. There are also a handful of national organizations dedicated to the collection of vintage fire apparatus, the largest of which is the Society for the Preservation and Appreciation of Antique Motor Fire Apparatus in America,.

The trucks which are likely to attract the most attention at the auction are the open-cab vehicles built during the "golden age" of firetruck construction, Mr. Derstine said. Manufacturers stopped making those vehicles in 1985 for safety reasons. Most of the vehicles to be auctioned date from the 1940s and 1950s.

People who buy firetrucks are usually civilians, but many fire departments, particularly volunteer departments that were forced to sell older vehicles to raise money, are in the market to replace what they lost, said Mr. Derstine, a retired federal firefighter.

The price someone is willing to pay does not always depend on the condition or make of the firetruck, he said.

"Somebody might go out there and that might be the piece that their father rode when he was in the fire service or whatever and it might have sentimental meaning, so that might outweigh the value and the pocketbook," he said.

While acknowledging "there's great interest out there" in the auction, Mr. Derstine said it might have attracted more interest had it been conducted as a live auction instead of through sealed bids. Sealed bids will limit the number of participants, he said.

But Mr. Butchko said the number of trucks being sold and the way the vehicles are stored prevented a live auction. Most of the firetrucks are parked side by side inside a building with little room to maneuver between them.

"I would love to have a [live] auction here, but I couldn't get 200 or 300 people in here," Mr. Butchko said. "It would be a liability nightmare."

The vehicles will be available for inspection from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday at the Denbo Marina on Ridge Road.. More information is available at auctionzip.com.

Sherrie Higinbotham-Buthcko with stored trucks that will be auctioned.


Mike Bucsko can be reached at mbucsko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1732.


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