Last Friday’s fire in a storage building facing Hunter Way was a reasonably lucky event. It did not become what New Bethlehem’s fire chief, Barry Fox, would call “our worst nightmare.” Other than the loss of a small building and a few hours of frazzled nerves, the town got off lightly.
Since I didn’t have a real camera on me, having only my cell phone tucked away in my purse, my contribution to the L-V’s coverage will be this week’s column.
As I walked around the municipal parking lot the other afternoon, I smiled grimly to myself. It seemed an ironic finale for National Fire Prevention Week.
Anyway, now that I don’t have the air conditioning on all the time, it’s easy to hear the fire whistles. When they wail, I tend to fire up the emergency scanner app on my tablet to find out what is going on. You know how I dread being assassinated by a random tornado in the middle of the day.
Once I heard the approximate location of the fire, Broad Street, my middle-age body swung into action. Well, actually it limped into action. That’s the new normal for those of us of a certain age.
Me and my gimpy knee made it as far as the living room window, from which I saw an ominous billow of black smoke rising from somewhere in the vicinity of the corner of Broad and Wood streets. That isn’t good, I thought.
Some quick calculations told me that walking would be better than driving, considering that traffic was probably already backed up and would only get worse. I stuffed my cell phone and a reporter’s notepad into my smallish purse and started off down the hill in South Bethlehem to the bridge.
A few people who were home by the late afternoon stepped on to their front porches. I don’t know. I think it may have been the shock of actually seeing me running loose in the streets that made them come out.
”That’s what it looks like to me.”
And we shook our heads in silence.
From the Armstrong County side of the bridge, I heard an almighty crash. Ah, a roof had caved in, and an experienced ear could pick out the distinctive tinkle of breaking building tiles. Yep, bad.
By the time I made it to the other side and was working my way along the sidewalk in front of the flower shop, the black cloud had turned bluish white, not smoke but steam. The fire companies were beating the fire.
In times like these, life becomes a series of snapshots. A white cloud of steam, two firefighters planning their strategy to reach the back door of the hair salon, Winnie Barrett standing in the middle of the intersection directing traffic and the shocking silence inside the L-V office were the major images from the first moments.
Mostly, I noticed how clots of onlookers formed for a few minutes back in the municipal parking lot, and then broke up to form new clumps in a different corner with new people.
In the middle of a murmuring crowd and the low growls of firetrucks from all over Clarion and part of Armstrong counties, my cell phone rang. It was my landlady, Lucille, asking me to come downstairs to see if the telephone line connection had come loose where it enters her home.
I must have sounded more than a little addled because I was standing a good half mile away. Once we established that I wasn’t at home, we decided that the fire had knocked out the landline phones in town.
Making the rounds of the shifting crowd, I heard somebody mention that our hometown folks never show up for good things but are Johnny on the spot when there’s trouble. If you think about it, that isn’t all bad.
I was all set to buy a couple of cases of bottled water for the firefighters when I remembered that I had no vehicle at the moment and that my ATM card was at home. What to our wondering eyes should appear but a line of Valley Advantage employees trooping through the parking lot carrying case after case of water.
A West Penn Power truck snaked its way up the open portion of Hunter Way and stopped near the rear entrance of EverMoore’s once the last wall of the nearby blazing building had fallen. The driver was on a mission to restore power to the restaurant and save the contents of its freezer.
Meanwhile, I was keeping a discreet eye on the owners of EverMoore’s, as was everyone else in the crowd. You couldn’t help it, because just about everybody goes through their doors once or twice a week. Their mood brightened quite a bit once the West Penn truck showed up.
The worst was over, so I decided to gimp my way back across the bridge to South Bethlehem. My decision to walk was a wise one, because traffic was backed up for another hour or two and I couldn’t have crossed the street. I mooched a free dinner at Mom’s on the other end of town.
By 10 that evening, most of the area had phone service again. The siren sounded briefly a half hour later when smoke was reported rising from the scene of the fire, but that small crisis was shortlived.
And that’s how New Bethlehem celebrated National Fire Prevention Week this year.