The Day the Dragon Almost Won

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NEW BETHLEHEM, PA (EYT) – It was just a misty, foggy Monday morning at the end of April. Just like most every other morning in New Bethlehem, there didn’t seem to be anything major going on as the sun struggled to break through the morning mist and fog. But, on that Monday morning, April 29, 2002, just as the sun was coming up, the Dragon sleeping under New Bethlehem, roared back to life.

Back in those days, the volunteer firefighters here in the Redbank Valley area called themselves “Dragon Slayers”. Their shirts and jackets were emblazoned with images of knights and warriors battling fire-breathing monsters. It was a title that they each had earned and wore with honor. The imagery is frighteningly real if you have ever fought or survived a structure fire.

New Bethlehem was incorporated as a borough in 1853. Most of the buildings in the business district along Broad Street were built between the Civil War and the turn of the twentieth century. This was an era with no building construction or safety codes. If you thought it would work, you did it. With little thought to safety or to the future, folks built buildings as they needed them and used them as they wanted to. One of these old buildings may have served variously over time as a haberdashery, a grocery, an office building, a “speakeasy” and a general store in the course of its life. Each occupant used the building as they needed, bringing in and leaving what they might. Over 150 years, the variety of chemicals and compounds spilled and soaked into the wooden structures might be absolutely amazing, and wickedly flammable. Fuel for the Dragon’s flame.

Just as the sun came up that April morning in 2002, an off-duty fireman saw the first flicker of flames in the 300 block of Broad Street. He called the fire in at 6:20 am. It only took minutes for the first of the firefighters to arrive on the scene. Within minutes, Fire Chief Barry Fox called for backup. The first aerial unit arrived from Clarion at 6:36, just 14 minutes after the first alarm. Before it was all over, there were more than 200 volunteer firefights on scene from more than 24 fire companies from three counties.

The Dragon Roars, Broad Street Fire April 29, 2002  Courtesy of New Bethlehem Fire Dept.

“We had almost our full force that morning,” Chief Fox said. “And that was back when we had a lot of men. The fire was early in the morning, most of the guys hadn’t gone to work yet and came to help.”

In a morning shattered by the worst possible circumstances, it was serendipitous that the fire started while most of the area firemen were still at home. Even a half hour later and the outcome may have been far more tragic.

Chief Fox recounted going into the buildings to plan their attack on the Dragon, “It was eerie the way the smoke curled in waves along the ceilings.” It seemed to Chief that the fire was probing and planning its assault. The buildings were old, a maze of narrow hallways, more like passageways. They weren’t laid out in any logical manner, and the increasing smoke could confuse even the most experienced Dragon Slayer. On fire, the buildings on the 300 block were deathtraps.

Before the mist cleared that morning, the fire expanded into five buildings on the block. The businesses in those buildings were Country Cottage Florals and Gifts, Newbie News, Hilliards Hardware and Dollar General occupied two buildings. Each of the buildings was fully engulfed and ultimately destroyed.

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It was a hard battleground for several reasons. The buildings were old. They were big buildings. From Broad Street south, the buildings were long enough to have housed a bowling alley. (The last Broad Street fire in New Bethlehem had been in the Magdovitz Building at Broad and Wood Streets, which had housed a bowling alley. Broadwood Tower apartment building was built on that site following the May 1962 fire.) The buildings were deceptively tall. On the Broad Street side, they were 2 and 3 stories, on the Jockey Street side they were 4 and 5 stories. There were two stories below Broad Street, built on the creek bottom. The extra two stories added draft and allowed the fire to burn hotter than it might have in buildings not so tall. There was no room to maneuver. Broad Street is narrow and the alleys in the 300 block were almost just paths. And, there is only so much water in the borough’s water system.

“They told me to cut off the water by mid-morning. We were lucky; we were ready to pump out of the creek by then. If we had lost water, it would have been a total disaster.”

‘The Creek,’ Redbank Creek, New Bethlehem’s two-edged sword, provided enough water to battle the blaze. There is an irony here, in that the buildings in the 300 block of Broad Street had been badly damaged by the creek flooding in January and, again in July 1996. After nearly destroying the town 6 years before, Redbank Creek helped the firemen save the town in 2002.

“We couldn’t figure out why the fire kept reigniting on the floors. We’d knock the flames down, and they would spring right back. It didn’t make sense.” Barry Fox recounted how the fire in the old buildings was hard to fight. They finally realized that the original wooden floors in the buildings had been oil finished and that they were fighting an oil fire not just a wood structure fire. The Dragon was sneaky as well as evil

“The Brookville Aerial unit really saved it that day.” Chief Fox said. “We put them in that little alley there and told them to do whatever it took but to stop the fire. They did. They ate smoke, they got hosed down, they got covered with debris, but they held the line and stopped the fire. If the fire had jumped the alley, it could have taken out the highrise (Broadwood Tower), too.”

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It isn’t just geographic proximity and similar mailing addresses that make a community. It is people coming together when the need arises. Besides the volunteer firemen fighting the fire, community residents turned out in droves to help in any way they could. Neighbors helped carry things out of buildings; neighbors served coffee and sandwiches to the firemen. Virtually every business in New Bethlehem that served food stepped up that day to help. Subway, Beverly’s Sweet Shoppe, A-Plus, Tom’s Riverside, The Shannon Dell Restaurant, Burger King, Vinny and Joe’s Pizzeria, Uni-Mart, Caruso’s Drug Store, Evermore’s, Sheppard’s Inn and J.M.Smucker’s all donated food and money for the men and women fighting the fire. The Red Cross provided food and shelter for the people evacuated from Broadwood Towers. As they had done during and after the floods of 1996, the people of New Bethlehem took care of one another.

“Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” (Matthew 6:34). Firemen, volunteers, neighbors and townspeople all knew they had to put the fire out and get through the day. Clean up and decisions about the future could wait, tomorrow would be soon enough for thinking. But, by the following morning, there were still hot spots in the ruins and the police and fire investigators were convinced that the Broad Street fire had been set.

No matter how close-knit the community, there can be rifts and cross currents under even the most tranquil looking surface. Bob and Victoria Willman had begun hosting teen dances in their Newbie News building and not everyone in town was pleased. Some people thought it was a good idea, a place for kids to go, inside, safe, supervised. Some neighbors thought it was a bad idea, an opening for drugs, sex, and other vices. Supposedly, the rumors were, that there had been threats against the Willman’s over the dances. Had someone taken it upon themselves to put an end to the teen dances? Did someone have a grudge against a landlord, or a business? Why would someone risk destroying the whole downtown? Questions swirled like ashes in the spring wind.

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Chief Fox said, “It was a three-day event before we were off call.” Twenty-six fire companies more than 200 firemen, five buildings destroyed, and four businesses displaced before it was over. Official estimates put the damage at more than $1,000,000 in 2002 dollars. Fifteen years later, that would be nearly 1.5 million in damage. Investigators dug through the ruins for days looking for those elusive clues to try to find the arsonist. The damage done to those involved was likely much greater.

The Hillard Brothers called it quits. Nearing retirement age, they chose not to reopen their hardware store. Country Cottage Florals and Gifts never reopened either. Dollar General reopened in the old Comet Grocery Store building across from the peanut factory on the edge of town. Early on, the Willman’s had planned on bringing their Newbie News back, but it didn’t work out that way. Bob and Victoria have left the country, and no seems to know where they are or what they are doing.

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There are still several blocks of original buildings along Broad Street in New Bethlehem. They give a quaint, 19th-century look to our little hometown, but they make a marvelous Dragon’s nest. It isn’t a question of if the Dragon will wake up again, but only a question of when. Chief Fox says he hopes that he never has to face that Dragon again. The Broad Street Fire of April 2002 was “a good fire” Chief said, “No one got hurt and no one died.” The next time, New Bethlehem might not be so lucky.

Fifteen years later, a couple of new buildings grace the 300 block of Broad Street. The old skyline is gone, and empty lots stand as a reminder of what was. The arson investigation went cold. Both the hardware store and the Newbie News building had paints, thinners and other petroleum products in inventory. These could have left the signature of accelerants that investigators found. Over 15 years, the investigator’s best friends, rumor, and whisper have yet to come forward. If someone had set the fire, it would seem likely that someone would have said something by now. Secrets don’t stay secret forever in small towns.

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New Bethlehem is no stranger to disaster, natural and man-made. Somehow, the town comes back, time and time again. It’s kind of like the ‘Creek’ flowing behind town – always moving, never changing but never staying quite the same. Fifteen years after the Broad Street Fire, everybody in town has their particular memories; we might each remember things that someone else has forgotten. Together, our memory is complete.

Redbank Creek still flows behind town. Friday nights in the fall are still devoted to the Bulldogs on the gridiron. Trucks still rumble through town, sometimes hitting the light pole on the Corner of Broad and Wood Streets. Memories of fire and flood are part of our community identity. The men and women in the Fire Company remain vigilant. The Dragon is asleep again, but we all know that someday when we are least expecting it, the Dragon will come to life again.

(Photos above by New Bethlehem Fire Company.)

300 Block Broad Street April 2017

300 Block Broad Street April 2017

New Buildings on the 300 Block of Broad Street April 2017

New Buildings on the 300 Block of Broad Street April 2017


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