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Lightning Bolt Destroys a Home but Builds Community Spirit

by on July 29, 2014 12:55 PM

Fire officials confirm that a lightning bolt sparked a Sunday night blaze that destroyed a Ferguson Township condominium.

Shawn Kauffman, assistant chief with the Alpha Fire Company says investigators ruled the fire was accidental. "The exact spot of ignition was not determined," he says, adding, "but there was no other source of ignition and based on witness statements and so forth they were confident it was a lightning strike."

The fire swept through one unit of a four unit condominium in the Greenwich Hill development on Shellers Bend. But it could have been much worse. Three adjoining units suffered relatively minor smoke and water damage thanks to fast action by firefighters and also modern construction techniques.

The condominiums were built with "fire separations," walls between the units that slowed down the fire. "They're not true firewalls," says Kauffman. " They're designed to hold the fire in check until the fire department can get there and that's exactly what they did."

Without the fire separations, "It could have been four units instead of one", he says. If that was older construction, before the codes required that separation, it certainly would have been more damage."

Dan Moser's condominium shares a wall with the unit that was gutted. ""It looks like the firewalls that the builder put in really did their job," he says. "If you go up to the upper level and look through the ceiling you can see the firewall and there was no damage on this side of the firewall."

On Monday, repair crews, inspectors and neighbors mingled on the sidewalks outside. Once gas and electric lines were checked out residents in at least two of the units were expected to get back inside.

Bob Neff's condo is on the far side of the four unit building. He refused to talk about fire damage. Neff says the real story here is how the fire brought out the best in everyone. "So the story is the community that lies behind all of this including the firefighters and the people that live here," he says.

Neff adds, "My wife and I are deeply grateful" for all the help. He says five different neighbors offered to put them up until they could return home. Other neighbors hosted another family that was temporarily left homeless.

The unit that was destroyed belongs to a family that lives out-of-state. Friends and neighbors are helping out any way they can. Don Leslie, president of the Greenwich Hill Condominium Association says, "They had friends over [Monday] morning to try and keep them posted on what's going on."

Leslie agrees the community shares a common bond. "We do a lot of things together. We have pot luck dinners once a month. We do special dinners three or four or five times a year. ... We do a lot of things together in this community and watch out for each other and take care of each other and we will in this emergency as well."

For Leslie, a former Penn State administrator, the fire's aftermath is tough to see.  "It is. It is," he says. "It's like it's our own unit because the whole community is affected now. I'm convinced we will all pull together and we will help each other out."

Firefighters are also getting credit for going above and beyond the call of duty. Don Moser's unit was formerly owned by his father-in-law, the late Col. Gerald Russell. Russell was a World War II hero and a tireless community leader until his death earlier this year.

Firefighters were inside that unit making sure the fire hadn't spread when they realized it was linked to Col. Russell. "They saw Col. Russell's picture there on the desk inside the sun room that he used as a study," says Leslie. "He went through the closets and pulled out the uniforms to save them. ... I have the uniforms in my garage right now hanging."

Assistant Chief Kauffman says, "That's what any member of our company would do. They're going to try to make sure that the property is saved whether it's somebody's simple furniture to valuable property like that from somebody who's an outstanding member of the community."

Moser says the uniforms hold special meaning for his family and he's grateful that firefighters took the time to keep them safe. "It was a wonderful gesture and we really appreciate that."

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Steve Bauer is Managing Editor & Chief Content Officer at StateCollege.com. Steve and his wife Trina are longtime area residents. They reside in State College along with a wacky Golden Retriever named Izzy. You can e-mail Steve at Steve.Bauer@StateCollege.com and you can follow him on Twitter @SteveBauerSCcom
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