By Mike Glore | Special to the Sentinel
Editor's Note: The following is a historical account by Mike Glore, republished with permission, recounting a fire which, four decades ago today, ravaged the unit block of South Main Street, where Rite Aid stands today.
SUBMITTED PHOTO - Defender Hose Company No. 3 of Shenandoah has their 1974 Hahn 1000 gpm pumper in service in front of the Goodyear Tire Store on South Main St. as fire consumes the 3 story buildings in the background. To the left, you can see the tiller cab of Ladder 21 of the Phoenix Fire Engine Company No. 2 of Pottsville.
SHENANDOAH - Albert Matunis, then a Schuylkill County Commissioner, owned a building at 25 South Main Street in Shenandoah.
The three-story building housed the office of Dr. Richard A. Schiffer on the first floor and apartments on the upper floors. Matunis checked on the fire in the furnace at approximately 17:00 hrs.
Shortly thereafter, it was reported that a smoke detector began sounding in the building. Matunis went downstairs to check and discovered smoke issuing from the doctor’s office on the first floor. When he and Dr. Schiffer opened the basement door, they were greeted with heavy smoke.
Dr. Schiffer tried to phone the fire department, but found his phone line was dead. He ran outside and called to a passerby to transmit the fire alarm. The building was evacuated and Box 25 – Main and Center Streets – was “hooked. “
Shenandoah firefighters arrived to find heavy smoke from the buildings and heavy fire conditions in the basement of the Matunis building.
Fire was also spreading via the interior wall to the Mr. Edwards Beauty Salon building at 27 South Main Street. As firefighters began to access the upper floors, they found fire extending vertically via the void spaces. Even in 1980, smoke detectors sounded to alert residents of the upper floor apartments.
As conditions deteriorated, it was clear that Shenandoah firefighters would need help in fighting an advanced fire in the downtown buildings. In addition, water supply was becoming a problem as large-caliber streams were being deployed. It was estimated that every fire hydrant in a 10-block area was tapped. This quickly took its toll.
Rescue Hook & Ladder of Shenandoah was in service with elevated master streams on both their 1947 Seagrave 75’ tractor-drawn aerial as well as their 1975 American LaFrance 50’ TeleSqurt. Fire Chief John Kayes began to call for mutual aid to both fight the fire and to bring water to the scene.
Flames spread south to the Goodman Department Store at 31 South Main Street. Quickly consumed, the Goodman building collapsed at 19:50. The Goodyear Tire Company at 33 South Main Street was also damaged.
Moving north, the fire destroyed the Zakarevicz Jewelry & Music Store at 29 South Main Street. Also, gutted was the Ufberg’s Furniture Store at 21 South Main Street.
At approximately 19:25, heavy fire erupted from the first floor display windows of the Ufberg’s building. Shortly after the collapse of the Goodman building, the Matunis and Edwards buildings also collapsed.
Left standing for a brief time was the brick wall of the Zakarevicz building. This, too, soon collapsed.
Fire companies from throughout Schuylkill County and beyond responded to the request for assistance including William Penn, Lost Creek, Frackville, Ashland, Mahanoy City, Shenandoah Heights, Brandonville, Altamont, Pottsville, Minersville, Hometown, St. Clair, Weston, Nuremberg, Sheppton-Oneida, Tamaqua, Union Township, Ringtown, Aristes, Friedensburg, and Schuylkill Haven.
Pottsville sent Phoenix (1978 American LaFrance 100’ tractor-drawn aerial), Humane (1953 Seagrave 1000 gpm pumper), and Good Intent (1975 Hahn 1000 gpm pumper).
A tanker shuttle was established with portable dams set-up at dump sites on Main St. and fill sites established at the sewer treatment plant in the western end of the borough.
In a unique move, a portable pump was used to obtain water from the 27,000 gallon swimming pool at the Shenandoah Valley High School on North White Street. This was used in relay to supply Rescue Hook & Ladder of Minersville’s 1963 Ford/Pitman 65’ Snorkel positioned on Oak Street and operated above the Goodyear Tire Store.
By 22:00, the fire was largely contained and most of the buildings involved had collapsed to a large degree. However, firefighters would remain on scene for some time. In fact, a fire department pumper was still on scene as late as Thursday, January 10.
An investigation into the exact cause of the fire was inconclusive due to the amount of damage to the buildings. The toll was devastating: Four buildings with businesses on the first floor and apartments above were leveled, a furniture store was gutted, and six other occupancies were damaged. Some properties to the rear on Market Street were also damaged.
In all, twenty individuals were left homeless. Five firefighters were injured and received treatment at the Locust Mountain Hospital: Anthony Vislusky, Shenandoah: burns to the face and ear; John Alcaraz, Shenandoah, hand laceration; Adam Balkiewicz, Shenandoah, head and back injury; William Rhoades, Mahanoy City, eye injury; Richard William, Schuylkill Haven, rib injury. Two female occupants of the apartments in the buildings were hospitalized for smoke inhalation.
This block of South Main Street was hit hard by fire over the years.
The Goodyear Tire Store occupied the site of the Strand Theatre fire, which occurred on December 27, 1965 in the Oppenheimer Building. Five businesses were destroyed, including the Theater.
On October 22, 1995, fire was discovered in the apartment building at 19 S. Main Street. It spread to the adjoining apartment at 17 S. Main St. and destroyed both buildings. These buildings were very long with apartments also fronting S. Market Street to the rear. Also damaged was Siswein’s Furniture Store at 9 S. Main Street, the Shenandoah Diagnostic Center at 13-15 S. Main Street, and the office of Dr. Hu at 21-23 S. Main Street. Dr. Hu’s office building was located where Ufberg’s Furniture had stood during the 1980 fire.
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