Mar. 17—NEW PHILADELPHIA — Oscar Ortiz was at work Friday morning when he got the dreaded news on a phone call from his wife, Mayolly DeJesus: “Our house is on fire.”
Ortiz rushed from his job to his home at 161 Valley St., about 15 minutes away along Route 209, only to find even worse news — his 16-year-old son, Carlos Laurano, was hospitalized with burns to his arms and legs from the fire.
No information was available Friday on the boy’s condition or the hospital to which he was taken.
Around 10:45 a.m., the fast moving fire ripped through five attached houses in the three-story complex, leaving at least seven people homeless. It was initially reported as a kitchen fire, and Ortiz and DeJesus acknowledged it started in the kitchen of their home.
It sent a thick black column of smoke skyward that could be seen for miles. Electric power to 671 customers in the borough was out from 11:46 a.m. to 1:27 p.m., according to PPL Utilities.
Four of the houses, 157 to 163 Valley St., were occupied. One, 155 Valley St., a former funeral home, was not.
Eric Rodweller was at work in a garage several blocks away when his girlfriend called and said the house at 159 Valley St. was on fire.
“My girlfriend, Krystal, was in bed when she smelled smoke,” said Rodweller, 18, a mechanic. “When she opened the front door, firefighters told her to get out.”
What she saw, Rodweller said, was dense smoke pouring from all of the homes on the block.
Rodweller and his girlfriend lost everything but the clothes on their backs. Clothing, cellphones, a television and personal items were lost in the fire, he said.
“I had my rent money in my wallet in my bedroom,” he said. “I don’t know what I am going to do.”
Rodweller’s mother, Casey Rodweller, rushed to New Philadelphia from her home in Tamaqua.
“We will make it,” she told her son. “We’ve been down before and came back, and we will do it again.”
The American Red Cross Disaster Action Team was on-site interviewing displaced families. The Red Cross commented on the Republican Herald’s Facebook post about the fire, saying the agency was assisting five adults and two children. It provided “comfort kits, a toy and resources for immediate assistance.”
Volunteer firefighters from Pottsville to Coaldale responded to the fire.
‘Through the roof’
Shortly after the Schuylkill County 911 Center was alerted to the fire, Port Carbon Police Chief Joseph Ferraro was on scene.
“You could see the smoke,” he said, “and by the time I got here, it (fire) was already through the roof (of the 161 address),” the chief said.
Ferraro said everyone was evacuated from the affected buildings.
Flames quickly spread to the west, severely damaging the home at 163 Valley St.; and then to the east, destroying those at 155, 157 and 159 Valley St.
Firefighters battled the fire for more than an hour before getting it under control at about noon.
With fire in the roof, the building was compromised, and firefighters had to evacuate.
“It was getting bad in there,” one firefighter said while kneeling on the street, brushing insulation off of his gear.
Early on, Tamaqua firefighters used their aerial truck to access the roof of 155 Valley St. in an attempt to cut a hole to allow heat and smoke to escape, which might have allowed firefighters to get inside. As the fire intensified, however, firefighters — who couldn’t be seen from the ground because of the intense smoke — were ordered off the roof as stability of the building continued to deteriorate.
Demand for water stressed the borough’s fire hydrant system, prompting tanker trucks to shuttle water to portable dams set up east of the fire site.
Route 209 was closed for several hours with fire police diverting traffic.
The fire was just east of the former McMullen’s Market, which was not damaged.
New Philadelphia Mayor Terri Gibbon, who noted that renovations had been taking place at the 155 address, handed out bottles of water to firefighters who were visibly exhausted from battling the blaze.
In addition to firefighters, Rapid Intervention teams were called from Schuylkill Haven, Englewood in Butler Twp. and Tamaqua. Schuylkill EMS was also on scene.
Friday’s fire comes less than a week after firefighters were called to a nearby home at 159 Valley St. on Saturday night. That home sustained extensive damage, and a woman had to be rescued from a back deck.
A state police fire marshal is investigating that blaze, which is believed to have been electrical and started in the basement.
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