Punxsy Hotel fire investigation continues

PUNXSUTAWNEY — Two days after a devastating fire destroyed a borough landmark, officials are still investigating the cause of the blaze that nearly leveled the Punxsy Hotel along North Findley Street.

Cpl. Chuck Gross, Punxsutawney-based Pennsylvania State Police Fire marshal, said he was “looking for clues as to how the fire began” Monday in the kitchen area of the Smuggler’s Inn, which is attached to the Hotel.

Gross said he was looking at the burn patterns in the area of the kitchen, trying to pinpoint where the huge blaze originated that began at 3 a.m. Saturday and destroyed the hotel, sports bar and restaurant in the rapidly spreading fire.

Fire Marshal Julie Clarke will continue the investigation, and Gross said he wasn't sure when the building remains would be authorized for demolition.

Punxsutawney Fire Chief Paul Hense said he was amazed at how quickly the fire spread from the Smugler's Inn portion of the structure to the original building, where the hotel was located.

"That fire must've been burning inside the walls already when we first arrived on scene," Hense said, adding that his intention from the beginning was to do an interior attack of the blaze.

That's why he had Big Run and McCalmont Township fire companies respond to the scene to assist Punxsy firefighters with the interior fire attack, and Sykesville to act as the Rapid Intervention Team (RIT), he said.

"J.R. Overly, Lindsey Fire Company captain, reported that when the interior crew first went upstairs, there was just some light smoke on the second floor, and then all of a sudden, he could see the fire coming across the wall," said Hense, adding he then ordered everyone out of the building since the structure was unoccupied at the time.

"I would say in almost the first half hour, that place was fully involved," Hense said. "That's how fast it was moving. Those old wooden structures — especially those with renovations and false ceilings — burn quickly."

Hense said firefighters were fortunate that there were large breaks between neighboring structures, including the municipal parking lot, Torrence Street, the McDonald's parking lot, Findley Street and the alley behind the Smuggler's Inn, which prevented the fire from spreading.
"I was worried about someone getting killed once the fire burned through the wall between Smuggler's and the Hotel portion, which could partially collapse on firefighters," he said. "Eventually, both sides collapsed, and the front of the structure had a large crack in it and was leaning toward the (Old) Spirit building."

Penelec had shut off the power to the Hotel, but there were still live electric lines in front of the building, Hense said, adding that he requested for the power to be shut off so that Tower 2 from the Brookville Volunteer Fire Department could be brought in to help douse the flames in front of the burning structure.

Hense said the Penelec lineman was unable to obtain permission from his dispatcher to turn the power off.

John Shimko, Penelec area manager, said the reason the power couldn't be shut off was because a new leg to the power grid had been added recently on Pine Street, and Penelec had not completely mapped out what area would be without power if electric was cut to that line.

Hense said because of that, he had no choice but to have the top half of the building on North Findley Street knocked off with large deck guns on Tower 40 from Lindsey and Tower 6 from Reynoldsville, which was positioned in the McDonald's parking lot.

Before that operation could occur, the many vehicles that were parked around the Hotel building had to be towed away by numerous area tow truck companies.

Two of those vehicles were so badly damaged from falling bricks and other debris from the building that the fire department had them remain in place, Hense said.

While that operation was in progress Saturday morning, the power on one leg of the downtown power grid was knocked out, which took power out to numerous businesses, homes and shut the traffic signals down in much of the downtown district, he said.

Hense said he wanted to thank everyone who helped fight the huge fire, including McCalmont Township, Sykesville, Big Run and Brookville fire departments, and DuBois City for also bringing its aerial truck to the fire scene.

"The cooperation from all of the companies was just great," he said. "Elk Run's new engine also performed well and fed foam to the tower to put a blanket on the smoldering ruins, which went fairly well and kept most of it from rekindling in many areas."

Hense said the area that kept rekindling was in the front of the building where there was a lot of debris that was trapped and was difficult to reach.

"Central responded to several rekindles Saturday, and Elk Run sprayed more foam on the smoldering ruins in the front which seemed to put it out once and for all," Hense said.

Meanwhile, the municipal parking lot located adjacent the Hotel will remain closed until further notice.