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Waynesboro homeless shelter fire investigated as possible arson

Firefighters were trapped trying to reach flames

Firefighters were trapped trying to reach flames

April 22, 2008|By JENNIFER FITCH

WAYNESBORO, Pa. - Two firefighters were trapped in New Hope Shelter on Saturday morning as the building burned, displacing nine people and leaving the facility shuttered amid an arson investigation.

New details of the fire emerged Monday as Waynesboro police worked with the local fire marshal to investigate the blaze that officials say started in mattresses and box springs propped between the back of the shelter and a large trash container.

"This was definitely a preventable fire. ... This should have never happened," Fire Marshal Jerry Hartman said.

Hartman, who has closed the shelter in the past, repeatedly said he is "frustrated" when talking about recurring fire code violations at the shelter. One that became a major issue over the weekend was a stairwell door blocked by a bookcase.

The basement thrift store's door into the stairwell automatically locks, which Hartman said would be fine had the upper floor door not been blocked. In the past, that matter resulted in violation notices, temporary corrections and subsequent violations.

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A pair of firefighters crawling through the smoke entered the stairwell from downstairs and ended up trapped.

"If this fire had gotten into the main building itself, I would've lost two guys," Hartman said.

The blaze - reported at 6:03 a.m. by shelter residents running to the nearby fire hall - destroyed an exterior wall and part of the roof. It reached the kitchen.

"In another five minutes, the fire would've gotten into the main part of the building," Hartman said.

"Right now it's undetermined on how it started, but it's definitely suspicious," said Mike Bock, a sergeant with the Waynesboro Police Department.

In addition to felony charges of arson, the culprit could face a host of charges, including criminal mischief, risking a catastrophe and reckless endangerment, according to Bock.

One count would be filed for each person in the building when the fire broke out, he said.

"People being what they are today cause problems, which is what happened Saturday," Hartman said.

On Monday, shelter officials were awaiting word from insurance company representatives concerning their next steps.

"Our thrift shop is going to be closed, and that generates $2,500 to $3,000 a month for us," said Brad Sell, president of the New Hope board of directors.

The work ahead includes repairs to portions of the electrical system housed in the damaged walls, as well as bringing the building up to fire and construction codes, an effort Hartman said could be extensive for the "dinosaur of a building." He said shutting the building down completely has afforded him and the town's building inspector better say in what needs to happen.

That might include installing thousands of dollars worth of sprinklers and, definitely establishing an alarm system directly connected to the county 911 center, Hartman said.

The latter change would address the fire marshal's pet peeve.

Hartman said an agreement was in place that a responsible party would be on duty 24 hours to call 911 in an emergency. That apparently failed, he said, because the fire department was alerted by residents banging on the door that morning.

"What if someone got hurt or died because no one was there, because we were out on another call? ... They're not going to open again out there until their alarm system goes straight to county" (dispatchers), Hartman said.

The shelter's board of directors has talked about installing an alarm system, Sell said.

Hartman said shelter officials also will have to get rid of combustible materials on the shelter's unused upper floors.

Mike Cermak, who inspects buildings through a contract with Accredited Services, said his issues will be with the roof and north and east walls that have been burned.

Cermak plans to allow temporary power flow at the building for use by contractors.

Hartman closed the shelter in September 2003 for fire code violations and received criticism then because Tropical Storm Isabel was bearing down on the region at the time. Shelter officials have closed New Hope voluntarily at times since then for renovations.

Sell estimated that it will be at least two months before New Hope opens again, but expressed confidence that it will reopen.

"I think the community realizes we do good work, and there's need for a shelter. Until the building itself is repaired, we cannot operate as a shelter," Sell said, noting that the best way for the community to help now would be to send cash donations.

Nine people from the shelter were staying with family, friends and other area homeless facilities after the fire. The shelter opened in the late 1990s.

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