Hotel fire rubble sifted for clues

October 18, 1998


Washington HouseBy DON AINES / Staff Writer, Chambersburg

photo: JOE CROCETTA / staff photographer

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - As night fell Sunday, investigators were finally able to get inside the Washington House to sift through tons of charred rubble in search of clues to what caused the fire that heavily damaged the historical structure early Saturday morning.

Sunday traffic snaked slowly through the downtown where one of the busiest intersections - Lincoln Way East and Second Street - remained closed.

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"We plan to be here all night. My goal is to get this straightened up by 8 a.m. tomorrow," Emergency Services Chief Allen Baldwin said Sunday night. By that he meant opening up at least one lane on both Lincoln Way East and Second Street before the morning commute.


"We're waiting for a crane to get here to pull some debris out to get to an area we need to look at," Chambersburg Police Sgt. Diane Kelso said earlier in the day. By late afternoon the clamshell crane was grabbing burnt timbers and other debris from where the second, third and fourth floors of the building used to stand.

The crane, owned by Ditto Crane Rentals of Hagerstown, dumped the debris onto the sidewalk and into the street below. A block away, five dump trucks stood by waiting to carry off the rubble.

Kelso said the investigation would focus on the northeast corner of the building where the fire is believed to have begun. She said the third and fourth floors near that corner and collapsed into the second floor.

Baldwin said Trooper Skip Sydnor, a state police fire marshal, and a borough police officer were inside looking for clues.

"It's going to be long-term," Baldwin said of the investigation into the cause of the fire, which was called in at 4:02 a.m. Saturday as a report of an odor of smoke in the area.

Fire company spokesman Robbie Gable said he arrived a few minutes after the report and saw heavy black smoke pouring from the eaves above the fourth floor. On the northeast side he said he saw smoke and flames coming from two third-floor windows.

Gable said there was trouble getting the type of crane needed to knock down the building to the top of the second floor. He said the crane working Sunday had to be brought in from a job outside the region.

A crane from Hanover, Pa., worked through Saturday night and Sunday morning to eliminate the most serious hazard, the badly damaged fourth floor on the northeast corner, which was leaning outward. A traffic signal and parking meters were removed to make it easier for the crane to maneuver around the building.

Westbound traffic was detoured at Fifth Avenue, onto King Street, Franklin Street and back onto Lincoln Way West past the square.

Northbound traffic on U.S. 11 was being diverted east onto East Queen Street, north on Fifth Avenue, west on East King Street and back onto U.S. 11.

Thomas Kalathas, who owns the 130-year-old building with his brother Charles, said they will not know whether the building will be rebuilt or demolished until they get inside.

"They have not let me go into the building yet to see how bad it is," he said Sunday from the New Texas Lunch, one of two other Chambersburg restaurants the brothers own.

They bought the building in 1991 and spent "a few bucks" renovating the second-floor hotel rooms. He said he did not know how much the building was worth.

The building had been empty for about an hour before the fire was reported. Gable said it took about 90 minutes to bring it under control.

Gable said firefighters changed from an offensive to a defensive posture shortly after arrival, deciding to concentrate on saving surrounding buildings rather than saving the Washington House.

He said half a dozen ladder trucks, including trucks from the Long Meadow and Halfway volunteer fire companies in Washington County, poured water into the burning building.

Gable said two firefighters were treated for minor injuries.

related story: Fire rips through Chambersburg landmark

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