Firefighters made a gallant attempt to prevent flames from spreading inside the Penn-Jersey Mart building at 316 N. Shamokin St. Monday night, but prior unsafe conditions in the southern half of the building, at 314 N. Shamokin St., and a heavy fire load were too much to overcome.
Several structural collapses occurred throughout the night as suppression efforts went defensive. Thousands of gallons of water from five ladder trucks were dumped on the flames raging from the three-story brick structure and an attached two-story addition in the rear. Companies from as far away as Shamokin Dam responded to assist local firefighters, many of whom had responded to a two-alarm fire in Coal Township and a structural collapse in the city on Sunday.
Two Shamokin firefighters fell partway through a second floor at 316 N. Shamokin St. as conditions began to worsen. They evacuated safely and continued to battle the flames with others after being checked by EMTs.
At times, smoke filled surrounding streets, which were covered in a maze of hoses and at times occupied by dozens of spectators with cameras. The fire, which started around 9:45 p.m., was knocked down around 1 a.m. and brought under control by 2 a.m., according to Steve Jeffery, county EMA coordinator and a city deputy fire chief.
A cause has not been determined, but fire officials believe the blaze started in the Penn-Jersey Mart offices at the rear of the store.
Still burning Tuesday afternoon
Smoke continued to rise from the rear of the building Tuesday afternoon. Some city companies were still at the scene, having used hoses as pillows to catch a few moments of rest. An excavator was used to expose hot spots in a pile of smoking debris created by a major collapse at 11:30 p.m. Monday.
“We were having a hard time getting it extinguished with all the rubble,” Jeffery said at the scene Tuesday morning.
The excavator knocked down a wall that separated Penn-Jersey Mart from the next door abandoned building to allow firefighters to get to the smoldering flames, which continued to burn at 2:30 p.m.
No one inside
He said the convenience store, located on the first floor of 316 N. Shamokin St., had closed at around 9:30 p.m. Monday. There are apartments above it, but despite initial scanner reports, the chief was not aware of anyone being inside the building when the fire began.
A neighbor from 310 N. Shamokin St. said she believes the pounding initially heard in the street and believed to be someone trapped was instead someone pounding on doors to alert people to evacuate the building.
Gary Long, a tenant, who lived in the back apartment of the building, was at work at Dunkin’ Donuts when the fire broke out. He said he didn’t know the other tenant’s name, but he knew he was not in the building. Long said he had two cats in his apartment at the time of the fire. Their fate wasn’t known as of Tuesday.
Owner rushes to town
Surinder pal Singh, the building’s owner, said he and his family rushed into Shamokin from their home in Lebanon after the alarm company called Monday evening to alert him. Penn-Jersey Mart customers and a Reinhart FoodServices deliveryman also called Singh to tell him the building was on fire.
Tuesday afternoon, Singh stood behind the building on Rock Street to watch the excavator attempt to clear rubble from the collapsed two-story rear addition. He said he spoke with Fire Chief Jason Zimmerman briefly Monday evening, but due to the severity of the fire, the conversation was short.
The building is insured, and Singh said he is waiting to learn how much it would cost before determining whether he will rebuild at that location. He has spoken to the two tenants, one of whom worked for him in the food mart, and said they found shelter Monday night.
Singh said he has owned Penn-Jersey Mart and the above apartments for four years, and the adjoining abandoned building is county-owned.