LOOK WHO’S BACK TO WATCH OVER TOWN; Joe's Drive in unveils refurbished groundhog cutout

PUNXSUTAWNEY — State Rep. Sam Smith, the local National Guard, members of the community and the staff of Joe's Drive-In gathered at the restaurant/ice cream shop on Saturday to commemorate the unveiling of the famous giant wooden groundhog.

The groundhog had been taken down for repairs and renovations after it was struck by a vehicle back in April.

However, it's back now and more or less "exactly the way it was," said Joe Sikora Jr., the owner of Joe's Drive-In.

A number of prominent figures in the community, including Smith, members of the Groundhog Club and the original likeness himself, Punxsutawney Phil, were present as the curtain was pulled down, revealing the newly refurbished groundhog to the public for the first time.

"It's a great honor for us to participate in this," said Bill Deeley, the president of the Groundhog Club, remembering back well over a decade ago when the original Punxsutawney Phil cutout was first displayed.

Sikora said that the construction of the giant groundhog was partially a safety measure and partially decorative.

The ramp had been built there already, and it looked a bit of an eye sore due to being essentially a pile of gravel. The Phil statue was put up to cover it, but it was also strongly reinforced to secure the ramp still more.

That decision ended up preventing a disaster.

"Everybody always said, 'All that steel, what are you doing?'" Sikora said.

"The joke was always that it could stop a tank," he added, "and it did."

The accident happened on Thursday, April 12, 2012. An IAV Stryker all-terrain vehicle, an eight-wheeled, four-wheel drive armored fighting transport vehicle weighing 22 tons and valued at $4 million when fully equipped that has been employed in the Middle East, ended up the culprit in the incident.

The vehicle, operated by Private P. Ricey of Meadville, had been traveling in a northbound convoy along Route 119/Indiana Hill on its way to the National Guard 856 Engineer Company on North Findley Street when, at about 12:29 p.m. that day, it suffered a brake failure while descending the hill.

The driver, Ricey, pulled it off the road onto the gravel runaway truck ramp that has long been there serving as an escape route in case of accidents akin to the one that took place that day.

Once the vehicle hit the ramp, it plowed through three raised gravel mounds, as well as the sand-filled plastic barrels at the ramp's end.

The vehicle continued off the ramp and struck the steel girder that serves as a support for the giant Punxsy Phil cutout, which is located just beyond the parking lot of Joe's Drive-In and is also owned by the establishment.

Then, the vehicle came to a rest.

When the crash occurred, Sikora said, there were 20 or so people eating inside the restaurant, in addition to himself and three or four employees.

"It was unbelievable ... We were completely blinded until the dust cloud settled," Sikora said, describing the day.

Police at the time of the incident said that had the girder not stopped the girder not stopped the vehicle, it likely would have torn through the restaurant and not stopped until it fell into Mahoning Creek.

Sikora also gives Ricey, the operator, a lot of credit in preventing a complete catastrophe from happening that day, for managing to steer the vehicle directly into the cut-out after barreling through the other obstacles.

"If he hadn't ... this wouldn't be Joe's Drive-In, it'd be Joe's Drive-Through," he said.

Following the accident, Ricey and one passenger, SSG A. Kural of Punxsutawney, were transported to the Punxsutawney Area Hospital via Jefferson County EMS for the treatment of injuries. Both individuals, Sikora said, are now completely fine.

The Stryker sustained disabling damage.

The groundhog took a substantial amount of damage as well.

"It was pretty much just destroyed," Sikora said. Parts of the cutout itself, particularly the face and body, were salvageable.

Other parts, such as the bottom panels and especially the steel girder, were completely redone.

Most of the costs of the effort were covered by insurance.

As part of the unveiling, Joe's Drive-In, until the end of the year, will be selling T-shirts, the proceeds of which will benefit the National Guard 856 Engineer Company.

Sikora would like to thank Charles Dobson of Dobson, Inc. for the work the company did reconstructing the groundhog, an iconic part of Punxsutawney's landscape. Dobson thanked the three employees — Dane Wisnesky, Jake Shick and Monte West — who did the physical work on the cutout.

Sikora also thanked Sandy's Beer Distributor for storing the panels in its back room until they could be put back in place.

State Rep. Sam Smith paid his own respects with regard to the job done in restoring the damaged statue.

"(Joe's Drive-In) is to Punxsy as much an icon as Phil is to the rest of the country," he said.

"I think it means a lot. ... Without Punxsutawney Phil, we'd have been just another little town," Sikora said.