Firefighters react to Juniata Terrace fire: Worst in years

LEWISTOWN – Firefighters always say that there is a brotherhood, not only within individual departments but within counties. This rang true when Mifflin County departments called upon departments from surrounding counties to help fight the six-alarm blaze at Juniata Terrace Thursday night.

Each company on the scene was given different assignments from Scott Beers, the Junction Fire Company Chief. Local companies like City Hook and Ladder, United Fire and Rescue, Brooklyn Hose Company and Granville Township Fire Department, all shared the experience with all the other responders from the county, and many have said it is one that will not be forgotten.

Company members with Junction said they have all the equipment needed to be self-sustained at a fire call, but they all said with this fire it was evident that more equipment was going to be needed. This thought was reiterated by Larry Carter, of Brooklyn Hose, when it was evident in the time it took them to run the hoses from their engine.

“When we got there the fire had only engulfed two of the homes in the row,” Carter said. “By the time our hoses were set three were involved and it [the fire] was working on the fourth.”

Both companies said the smoke cloud from the fire was visible from both of their stations as soon as they pulled the equipment out. Junction members said the problem with the Terrace is that it is in an area where homes were built before some of the new fire regulations were in place. Former Lewistown Borough Fire Chief Bob McCaa was the senior safety officer on the scene, and he said the construction of the firewall did not do favors to prevent spreading.

“Many of the homes affected had a firewall, but it didn’t go up all the way to the roof,” McCaa said. “For that to be effective it needs to extend past the top of the roof 18 inches. In the homes affected this was not the case.”

McCaa also said the fire used this space to spread.

Regardless of where the firefighters were, they all felt a flash-over explosion and many said this was the scariest moment during the evening. All of these companies and more, had members either inside of the building or close enough to feel the whole building shake. Carter said when the explosion happened, the ceiling came down and the fire was all around him and the group he was with.

“We heard the air horn, which means you need to get out, but we were surrounded by fire and had to take a moment to get a safe way out,” Carter said. “I would call this the fire of the century.”

United had firefighters on the roof of the building and many members felt the roof nearby cave in, but thankfully no one was severely injured. This sentiment would be shared by all, especially due to the severity of the situation. Junction members said they operate under the motto of “everybody goes home.” City, Brooklyn and United also said they operate under similar mottos.

Interim Lewistown Borough Fire Chief Bob Barlett, said that, given the severity of the fire, not having serious injuries was a blessing.

“This has been the worst fire, in terms of units involved,” Barlett said. “Only a few firefighters needed to be taken to the hospital for minor things, and all were able to go home.”

Alan Sunderland held command for the Fame EMS rehab, and he said the rehab went very smooth.

“The rehab of this magnitude of a fire went really smooth,” Sunderland said. “It was a different experience working with EMS departments from all over the county.”

Besides all the departments sharing the experience together, all said the scene was operated smoothly by Junction Chief Scott Beers. Brooklyn Hose Company Captain Bill Morrison said Beers ran the scene as best as someone in that situation.

“We got there and he (Beers) told us where he wanted us, and that was where we stayed throughout the six hours,” Morrison said. “Our engine supplied the water to their truck, we did not leave Thursday night until they were ready to leave.”

Captains at City, United, and Granville all said the same thing. Beers saw what needed to be done and he reacted. Barlett said Beers kept calling for the resources that were needed and plans to protect structures changed as the situation required it.

“At first his (Beers) plan was to protect structures, but the fire spread a more offensive approach needed to be taken,” Barlett said.

All of the companies said the East Derry Township Fire Department helped to keep the entire scene operational, helping to refill oxygen tanks as they were being emptied. Junction said members came out of the building with no air left in their tanks, and the tanks were replaced and the members went right back in. Not only did Derry Township help in this way. The other companies that were brought in from Huntingdon, Center, Juniata, Snyder, Clinton and Perry counties all helped the Mifflin County departments.

Members from City, Brooklyn Hose, and Junction all said the were scared and if someone were to tell you different, they would be lying. Jeff Wagner, of Brooklyn Hose, said they are not heroes.

“The true heroes are in comic books and on TV,” Wagner said. “We just do it because it is the right thing to do.”

City, United, Granville, Junction and Brooklyn members all believe that this fire is one that will be studied for future use and that hopefully they can learn how to better fight one this severe next time.