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Tidioute's Worst Fire, 1979


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From the Wednesday, February 7, 1979, front page of The Forest Press:

Vendetta Is Alleged

Tidioute Fire Loss May Reach One Million

Tidioute fire, 1979
Photograph by Ted Nuttall from The Forest Press

The vendetta of a former Tidioute resident, who is in violation of parole from Boston, Mass., apparently resulted in the fire in Tidioute early Friday morning which destroyed a city block, left five businessmen and seven persons homeless, sent two firemen to the hospital and caused extensive smoke and water damage to neighboring buildings. The cost of replacement has been estimated at $1 million.

Peter W. Levillee, 24 of RD 1, Tidioute has been transferred to Erie from Warren County Jail after his arraignment before District Justice Suzanne Hodges about 6 am. Sunday. Bail was set at $100,000. (Warren County prisoners are being housed in Erie while a new jail is under construction.)

Levillee was charged with arson in the fire which started about 3:00 am. Friday and which destroyed the following Main St. businesses: Goodwin's Dept. and Variety Store, Rice Heating & Plumbing; office of Schwab's Ford Sales; Martin's Golden Dawn; Druggan Hardware and Micheline Manno Beauty Salon.

Apartments destroyed were occupied by Sandra Westfall; Homer Miller; Preston Cottrell; Bill & Sherry Johnson and 2-year old daughter Nicole Lynn, Mrs. Johnson's grandfather, Glenn Bliss, and their niece, Kimberly Gesi, 15, Rd, Tidioute, who had stayed overnight after babysitting. All occupants escaped.

Injured were Tidioute Fire Chief John McManigle and West Hickory firefighter Frank Reese. McManigle was admitted for treatment of exhaustion and smoke inhalation. Reese was released after treatment for injuries received when a hose nozzle blew up. Several other firemen were treated for smoke inhalation, cuts and burns at the scene.

None of the apartment occupants were injured.

Officials have intensified their investigation of a fire December 23rd which gutted the K & K Laundromat, across the street from Friday's fire, and the fire January 23rd which destroyed H. W. Higgins Plumbing and Heating, on Main St. at the west end of town.

Levillee reportedly was evicted from a Tidioute tavern about 1:30 am. Friday after he bragged that Tidioute would remember him for two reasons from the past, and for a third reason when his name again would hit the headlines. He was reported at the scene of the fire when the first person arrived after smoke was reported coming from the building.

He was questioned by police Friday at his home on Rt. 62 north of Tidioute.

Leville was arrested Saturday by Conewango Township Officer John Bonavita. Bonavita was acting on a warrant issued through District Justice Suzanne Hodges after it was learned Levillee was a fugitive from justice from Mass. Bonavita observed Levillee hitchhiking north in North Warren at the intersection of Rt. 62 and 69 near 8 p.m. Saturday.

Levillee has been charged with three felony counts: arson, causing a catastrophe and burglary. He was cited by Tpr. Myron Fernstrom of the Warren State Police barracks with having caused a fire at the residence of Homer Miller, 104 Main St., Tidioute; with having caused that building, three adjacent buildings and an office to be destroyed; and with burglary.

Police interviewed a number of person [sic] concerning early details of the fire, according to Sgt. Edwin Gorgacz of the Warren State police. He said he and District Attorney Richard Hernan had high praise for the cooperation of Tidioute's police department and by fire officials. Hernan noted that by law fire officials are authorized to act as fire marshals at a fire scene.

Tidioute Fire Chief John McManigle said the firefighters originally suspected arson when it was noted a rear door of one of the businesses had been pried open.

Hernan said the investigation at the site will continue for some time even though a ruling of arson has been issued by the State Police Fire Marshal's Office as the cause of the blaze.

Although Levillee was not accompanied by a lawyer at his arraignment, he told Hodges he had spoken with a lawyer by telephone and he waived his preliminary hearing based on that conversation. He also made application for a public defender.

Chief McManigle said after being released from Warren General Hospital Saturday that he was feeling "decent". He was treated there for smoke inhalation and exhaustion. He said it would probably be later this week before he could come up with an estimate of damages; however, he said he wouldn't be surprised if replacement value of the six buildings would approach $1 million.


In the same issue of The Forest Press, pages 11 and 14, was this report by Karen Craft:

Worst Fire In History

For the third time in six weeks, our valley echoed with the wail of the fire siren. This time was the worse fire in our history, an entire block, 98 Main to 110 is gone. Six businesses are gone. Five families are homeless. Business people have lost their livelihood.

The fire was discovered by Homer Miller, who occupied an apartment at 104 Main. He called in the fire at 3:14 am. Ken McKay was the first line officer at the scene, he is responsible for getting the William Johnson family, Sandy Westfall and Mr. Glenn Bliss to safety. Mr. Preston Cottrell, who lived over Goodwin's store had spent the night with his parents in Grand Valley.

Tidioute fire, 1979
Photograph by Ted Nuttall from The Forest Press

The fire started in the basement of Michelene Manno's beauty shop; it soon spread in both directions. Realizing the seriousness of the situation, Fire Chief John McManigle redioed [sic] for mutual aid from Grand Valley, Garland, Youngsville, West Hickory and Tionesta Fire Dept.

Tidioute fire, 1979
Photograph by Ted Nuttall from The Forest Press

As each company arrived they were placed in position to best attack the fire, with one truck of Tidioute's and one from Garland fighting from hydrants on Main Street. A Tidioute truck, Grand Valley, Youngsville, Garland and Tionesta trucks and men were directly behind the building. One Tidioute truck and two from Tionesta were on the river bank supplying water to the other trucks.

The situation grew more tense, when the peak of the roof of the Larimer Hotel burst into flames. Quick action from the men who were positioned on Main Street saved the building from further damage. Water was sprayed on the Hotel, barber shop, Rasomivitz home, bank and the new Dentist Office to keep them cool during the intense heat.

Tidioute fire, 1979
Photograph by Ted Nuttall from The Forest Press

The town was blanketed by heavy smoke and sparks were blown a mile and a half to the east end of town.

Ben Courson said he was concerned for the safety of his buildings and others between his farm and the fire. He lives 1 1/2 miles east of Tidioute. Mrs. Joanne Nuttall, who lives two blocks away behind the post office, said pieces of buring tarpaper nine to ten inches in diamater fell in her back yard.

Tidioute and Youngsville Emt's and ambulance crews were at the scene and treated firemen for smoke inhalation, frost bite and burns. Fire chief, John McManigle was hospitalized over night and treated for smoke inhalation and exhaustion. Jeff McKown was treated for smoke inhalation and released. Frank Reese, West Hickory firemen [sic], was treated when a nozzle ruptured near his chest.

One Hickory fireman refused treatment after he was struck on the lower part of his leg by a nozzle. He said he was afraid he wouldn't be able to get his boot off [sic] if he took it off to see how bad the bruise was.

Thousand of feet of hose was laid. The fire was fought from all four sides. At no time, did any firemen back off or give up. They stood their ground until the fire was under control.

The fire was brought under control after several hours of hard work. Everything was covered with ice. Every man was ice covered, beards were frozen and ice cyles [sic] hung from hats as well as moustaches. I witnessed firemen [sic] removing a jacket from another firemen [sic] using a hammer and a pair of pliers to break the ice that had frozen the jacket shut.

Tionesta's Fire [sic] truck was partly buried in mud at the edge of the river. The driver had to span a ditch in order to get close enough to reach the river's edge. The truck was pulled out by Heenen's equipment.

Tidioute's Jr. Firemen were kept busy helping where needed, running errands, getting equipment, dry jackets, gloves, etc, and passing out hot chocolate and coffee.

Projectiles were flying all over during the fire as aerosol cans exploded and rifle shells in the hardware store.

When one of the cable [sic] holding the blinker light at Buckingham street burned in two, it fell to within inches above a Tidioute firemen's head and was held by another line.

The large windows of the Tidioute Branch Warren National Bank were broken by the intense heat and the water that was used to keep the building cool.

Tidioute fire, 1979
Photograph by Paul Bohlander from The Forest Press
Caption: Firemen continued clean-up on Saturday.
Intensity of heat had melted Warren National Bank sign at right.

Bank employees came to work Friday morning wearing boots and armed with brooms and shovels. They went to work cleaning up the debris while Penelec crews worked to restore electrical power. By afternoon the bank was operational.

This was one instance where the spectators were more help than in the way. Many pitched in to help without getting in the way of firemen. It was their help which enabled Bob Schwab to get some $35,000 worth of new cars to safety with little damage.

Local State Police arrived at the scene to help with traffic control. State Police Fire Marshall from Erie was notified and arrived in early morning. An immediate investigation into possible arson was started.

Firemen stayed at the scene all day and Friday night firemen and members of the Lion's Club patroled the area.

Photograph by Jim Haslet from The Forest Press
Caption: The opera house, west of the fire
and separated only by a narrow alley was saved by the wind direction,
and by cooling efforts by firemen.

Coffee and Hot chocolate by the gallon was served by the Fire Co. Aux, Choc. Shop, at Reese's Garage and at the Vet's building.

The firemen were busy all day getting their hoses thawed, dried and back on the trucks. Many 50 ft. joints of hose were damaged due to the freezing temperature.

Coughlins Market supplied the groceries and members of the Aux. cooked a breakfast of bacon and eggs for all the firemen who were still in town.

Members of the Lion's Club arrived at the firehall at 6 pm. Friday evening to assist the fire dept. in getting dry hose and equipment back in order and on the trucks in case of another run.

Pleasantville Fire Dept. sent 9 men and their emergency truck Friday evening to assist Tidioute in patroling the area and dousing rekindled rubble. The tired and exhausted Tidioute firemen greatly appreciated the thoughtfulness of Pleasantville Fire Dept.

Members of the Tidioute Fortnightly Club sent lots of good food to the firehall for the men who were staying all night. The Tippy Canoe sent over a big kettle of homemade soup and Mary larimer [sic] sent up a big bowl of salad.

There have been many guesses as to the exact dollor ]sic] loss, but until everything is finally tallied, one can only give an estimate.

There were many heroes at work during the fire and clean-up; but special note must be made of the fast action by Tom Shomaker in dousing fires which had started on the exterior of the Latimer Hotel, across the street.


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