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HARROWING: Fire sweeps through Holly Hall in Pineford; feds investigating cause; seeking tips, photos

frombelow4 6 16 2WEBPhoto by Bill Darrah-- Firefighters battle the blaze at Holly Hall from the ground.

 

 

When 90-year-old Isabelle Lehman looked out her window in her third-floor apartment in Holly Hall at the Villlage of Pineford on Sunday, April 3, she saw something that looked like a cloud drift across the lawn below.

It wasn’t a cloud – it was smoke. She looked up to see upper floor in flames.

She quickly called Dauphin County 9-1-1, and when a dispatcher asked her to stay on the line, she replied, “I can’t. I have to get out.’’ She grabbed her purse and left her apartment, her home for the past 30 years.

Flames ravaged the top of the five-story apartment building as firefighters from Middletown and several neighboring companies battled the blaze, which began around 11:30 a.m. Sunday.

Several law enforcement agencies, led by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, are investigating the cause. Assisting are a Pennsylvania State Police fire marshal, the Dauphin County District Attorney’s Criminal Investigation Division and the borough, said Det. Mark Hovan, a spokesman for the Middletown Police Department. No one will be allowed back into Holly Hall for at least seven days because the fire is considered a “crime scene’’ until officials learn more about its cause, Hovan said.

Miraculously, no injuries were reported. “It certainly is a tragedy, but the thing I am most grateful for is that I have not heard of one injury, be it crew or residents,’’ said Middletown Mayor James H. Curry III. “That’s something I’m extremely thankful for.’’

Middletowners rushed to the rescue of fire victims, donating piles of clothing, toiletries, blankets – even toys – and food that was provided at an emergency shelter at the MCSO Building on Emaus Street. About 60 people arrived for aid, but everyone found a place to stay, said Dan Tobin, director of communications for the American Red Cross’ Central Pennsylvania Chapter.

The donations from local citizens were “phenomenal,’’ Tobin said. “The outpouring of support from this community is unbelievable,’’ he said, as fire victims wandered in and out of the MCSO Building.
Investigators are not close to determining the cause yet, said Sgt. Richard Hiester of the Middletown Police Department. It will be a week or more before anyone other than official investigators can get into Holly Hall, he said. The building is a health and safety hazard.

“The structural integrity of the building is in question at this point,” Hiester said. It is also wet inside the building, and with refrigerators now having been off for more than a day, spoiled food is starting to accumulate.

Residents with information that could help investigators are asked to call the police at 717-558-6900 or use the Nixle Tip Line. “Please do not assume the police are already aware of any particular fact. All tips will be investigated,” police said in a Nixle alert that was put out early Monday, April 4.
Holly Hall has 80 apartment units, of which 15 are “completely burnt out” and another 16 “horribly damaged,” Hiester said.

Thirty-two other units have water damage. That number could end up much higher, once investigators are able to get through all the apartments on the first and lower floors, Hiester said.

Dramatic photos of flames shooting from the top of the building, coupled with post-fire images resembling a bombed-out structure in a war zone, make it look as though the fire started in the top floor. But investigators need a lot more than just photos before making such a determination.
A forensics team is gathering evidence from inside the building that will subsequently be sifted through in painstaking detail, Hovan said.

As an example of how complicated a case like this can be, Hovan noted that the fire that destroyed Middletown’s landmark Mansion House in 2010 remains to this day an open, unsolved investigation.
“This takes time,” Hiester said. “There are no preliminary determinations. The only thing we know at this point is that there are a lot of people affected.”

One of the biggest challenges in trying to identify the cause of a fire like the one at Holly Hall is that the fire itself “consumes a lot of the evidence that may have determined how it was started,” said Steven Bartholomew, an ATF spokesman.

On top of that, the “suppression efforts” – basically the huge amount of water used to put out the fire – can damage evidence or render it unusable, he added.

ATF was brought in to lead the probe due to the size and scope of the investigation, Bartholomew said.
“Our presence doesn’t necessarily mean that a criminal act occurred,’’ he said. “It’s a fire investigation involving a large fire scene with a significant amount of damage.”

The ATF team includes agents and investigators brought in from the bureau’s Harrisburg office and field office in Washington, D.C., Bartholomew said. Among the team members are special agents who are designated as certified fire investigators, as well as a fire protection engineer and an electrical engineer.

Investigators will be interviewing Holly Hall residents, the owners and managers of Pineford, first responders and some of the many passersby who saw the fire and took photos and video on their cell phone or other camera. Investigators want to look at any video that may provide clues as to how and where the fire started.

Investigators will also comb through debris within Holly Hall. If necessary, some fire debris will be sent to an outside ATF lab for analysis.

ATF will stay involved in the investigation until one of three conclusions can be reached regarding the cause of the fire, Bartholomew said: Was the fire was accidental? Was it set intentionally? Can the cause ever be determined? There is no set timetable for how long it will take to arrive at one of those three conclusions, he said.

Word of the fire, and the plight of its victims, spread over Facebook on Sunday, and people began arriving at the MCSO Building with donations. There were piles of jackets and blankets, soap and new toothbrushes, cake and pizza, sliced turkey and ham and mashed potatoes.

“People came in droves,’’ said Dawn Knull, a Middletown Borough Council member, as she stood among donated supplies at the MCSO Building. The effort was not surprising, she said. “This is Middletown. Every disaster we have had, something like this happens. Middletown people come together.’’

For Lehman, the greatest necessity was a place to stay, and she found one – another apartment in Pineford, where she wants to remain. She left behind an apartment filled with memories – knickknacks and furniture she’s owned for decades. “I have good insurance, and I can buy new,’’ she said. “But I would hate to think I lost some things I’ve had a long time.’’

When she walked out the front door of Holly Hall, she was struck by the serenity. “It was very calm,’’ she said, until fire engines began to pull up and firefighters shouted for residents to evacuate the building.

Standing in the MCSO Building, surveying donated items, Lehman found it difficult to sum up her feelings about what happened.

“It takes a while to sink in,’’ she said.



Last Updated on Tuesday, 05 April 2016 15:39

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Londonderry approves island agreement


cabinphoto4 6 16webPress And Journal photo by Eric Wise -- Brian Shutter stands outside his summer cabin on Shelley Island.

With an audience of 400 people at the Londonderry Fire Company watching, the Londonderry Twp. supervisors approved a compliance agreement with York Haven Power Company that could spell the end of about 250 river homes on Shelley and Beshore islands. It was exactly what the crowd sought to prevent.

The agreement, in which York Haven, owners of most of Shelley and Beshore, would end island leases with retreat owners by 2017, was released three days before the township’s March meeting. But after hearing impassioned pleas from homeowners, the supervisors postponed a vote on the agreement, which affects the owners of 178 Susquehanna River retreats on Shelley and 64 on Beshore. 

The township is under pressure from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to begin strictly enforcing its floodplain development ordinance, which was adopted in March 1980 but rarely enforced on the islands for most of its existence.

“The power company is foisting the compliance agreement on you,” Dwight Yoder, an attorney with Gibbel Kraybill & Hess – a law firm representing the Lake Frederick Homeowners Association, a group of retreat owners – told the supervisors. “They want you to take the heat. That’s what this is about. You shouldn’t have to.”

The supervisors approved the agreement by a 5-0 vote.

Yoder requested a reprieve of 180 days for the association to negotiate with the power company to get the summer homes on Shelley and Beshore islands into compliance with the township’s ordinances. He suggested that the supervisors should be open to working with the property owners rather than trying to get rid of island homes.

Association leaders said on March 30 that York Haven would be open to negotiate with them if the township called off its enforcement efforts for a few months.

Not so, according to Jim Diamond, a township solicitor with Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellot. He said the township received word from York Haven last week that it still supported the compliance agreement as written.

York Haven intended to end all recreational licenses with homeowners April 30, Diamond said. In simple terms, no agreement means no one will be able to use the islands after this month. 

Diamond said the message from York Haven is clear: “We are getting out of the business of short-term licensing.” He said it’s simply a way to give homeowners two more years on the river before they must clear the island.

York Haven officials did not respond to calls from the Press And Journal, and they have not appeared at any township meeting involving their island properties.

After Yoder, a handful of island homeowners made their case for allowing them to keep their island homes by getting into compliance with floodplain ordinances. Some homeowners, as well as local business owners, said the island life was not just about a rich family tradition, but also an economic driver for the hinterland that benefits from Lake Frederic.

Pressure from FEMA

Londonderry Twp. negotiated the compliance agreement with York Haven because the power company owns the land containing about half the 487 island lots in the township. Bare’s Tip of Shelley Island has about 19 cabins on the south end of the island  on lots owned by Rick Krehling, who operates Rick’s Marina on the York County side of the river.

Three other river islands are home to summer retreats. Sixty properties on Beech Island are privately leased to cabin owners under a perpetual 99-year agreement, while lots on Hill Island and Popular Island are also privately held.

Steve Letavic, township manager, described the immense burden of the FEMA pressure on Londonderry, which he said will continue to be a cost as the township moves forward with enforcing the floodplain ordinance on the other islands.

Letavic said it would take a 4-mill tax increase to get the island properties into compliance. “Those costs will be passed on to property owners, and we believe the average increase in taxes if that were to occur to Londonderry taxpayers at the local level would be $400 per property owner, and it would not stop there,” he said. He noted the cost would drop by half with the York Haven agreement.

The median-value mainland home in the township is $75,700, which would see a $303 increase in the municipal portion of its property taxes under a 4-mill increase cited by Letavic. 

Derek Krehling, a spokesman for the Lake Frederick Homeowners Association, said he questions many of the numbers bandied by the township. “My initial thoughts are the numbers are greatly exaggerated,” he said. “We will be checking up.”

Londonderry must get into compliance or lose the ability for any of its homeowners to buy government-backed flood insurance. If it fails to meet FEMA standards, it will lose eligibility for all types of disaster relief, including infrastructure repairs following floods and the snow removal after Winter Storm Jonas.

Diamond said the township is powerless when it comes to forcing York Haven to continue licensing the lots. In addition, he said, “The township did not mandate the removal of these structures in its negotiations with York Haven.”

Limited public participation

Supervisor Mel Hershey clarified prior to voting on the motion that the compliance agreement allows the island homeowners to stay on the islands until the end of the summer season in 2017, and it allows them to negotiate another solution with York Haven if it receives a blessing from FEMA and the township.

The supervisors, who limited comment to the beginning of the meeting only, refused to allow any public comments or questions after Diamond and Letavic spoke. Aside from Hershey’s question, no supervisor spoke about the situation. After they all voted to approve the agreement, they quickly adjourned and left the room, despite attempts from members of the audience to express dissatisfaction.

Diamond said the meeting was not intended to be a “question and answer session,” as the supervisors did not respond to questions during the public comments at the beginning, and they would not allow any further public comment after Letavic and Diamond spoke for about 20 minutes. 

Melissa Melewsky, an attorney with the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association and an expert on the state’s open meetings law, said public agencies like the board of supervisors are required to “enable an opportunity for meaningful public comment” prior to a vote. Public comment was limited to the beginning of the meeting, and the manager and solicitor felt it necessary to provide a great deal of information after public comment was closed yet prior to a vote. “(This) procedure raises compliance issues because the public wasn’t well informed about the proposal when public comment was accepted, and was denied an opportunity after they became well informed,” she said.

‘Morally wrong,' owners charge

The township, the power company and the homeowners all have a hand in the development of today’s problems with island development that failed to comply with the township’s ordinances, said Yoder, both in his comments to the board and in a letter he sent to Londonderry officials prior to the meeting.

“The situation on the islands did not happen in a vacuum and the blame should not be placed on the owners of the lots,” Yoder said in his letter. “The township should recognize that it has significant responsibility in what has occurred.”

Krehling said the agreement approved by the supervisors is “a quick and easy way for the township to wash their hands of the problem.’’

“The township provided inaccurate information regarding permitting and building to the islanders for over 30 years,’’ Krehling said. “The township failed to do their due diligence for all these years, but they gladly took, and continue to take, our tax dollars.” 

Krehling said it’s “morally wrong” for Londonderry to rush into this agreement and place a huge burden on islanders for getting into compliance. He said while the township points out the cost to its mainland taxpayers for getting the islands into compliance, it fails to note that the islanders’ tax dollars did not buy them accurate information when they called the township about building or other permits over the past decades.

Now that the township has approved the compliance agreement with York Haven, the homeowners’ association must work with York Haven officials to consider continuing the recreational licenses, Krehling said. “Our next step is to regroup and produce an alternate compliance plan,” he said. 

The association, organized just weeks ago, has co-opted on its Web site some of the most famous words uttered by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill on June 4, 1940, as he addressed Parliament in regard to the Nazi threat: “We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender."




 

Last Updated on Wednesday, 06 April 2016 15:06

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Help for fire victims ...

Middletown Borough noted at 7:38 a.m. today that clothing, toiletries etc. will be provided to victims of the Village of Pineford fire.

The alert announced via the nixle alert service noted any residents of Pineford that were affected by the fire in need of clothing, toiletries, non-perishables or blankets are instructed to come to the MCSO building on Emaus St. today, Mon., Apr. 4 between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Identification will be requested.

Last Updated on Monday, 04 April 2016 08:08

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FIRE DAMAGES APARTMENT BUILDING IN PINEFORD; HOLLY HALL CONSIDERED A 'CRIME SCENE' UNTIL CAUSE IS DISCOVERED, POLICE SAY

webflames4 6 16In this photo by local photographer Bill Darrah, flames shoot through the roof of Holly Hall in the Village of Pineford on Sunday, April 3. The cause of the blaze is under investigation.

When 90-year-old Isabelle Lehman looked out her window in her third-floor apartment in Holly Hall at the Villlage of Pineford on Sunday, April 3, she saw something that looked like a cloud drift across the lawn below.

It wasn't a cloud – it was smoke. She looked up to see a patio on an upper floor in flames.

She quickly called Dauphin County 9-1-1, and when a dispatcher asked her to stay on the line, she replied, "I can't. I have to get out.'' She grabbed her purse and left her apartment, her home for the past 30 years.

Flames ravaged the top of Holly Hall as firefighters from Middletown and several neighboring companies battled the blaze, which began around 11:30 a.m. Sunday.

The cause is under investigation by the borough, state police fire marshal and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said Det. Mark Hovan, a spokesman for the Middletown Police Department. No one will be allowed back into Holly Hall for at least seven days because the fire is considered a "crime scene'' until officials learn more about its cause, Hovan said.

Miraculously, no injuries were reported. "It certainly is a tragedy, but the thing I am most grateful for is that I have not heard of one injury, be it crew or residents,'' said Middletown Mayor James H. Curry III. "That's something I'm extremely thankful for.''

Middletowners rushed to the rescue of fire victims, donating piles of clothing, toiletries, blankets – even toys – and food that was provided at an emergency shelter at the MCSO Building on Emaus Street. About 60 people arrived for aid, but everyone found a place to stay, said Dan Tobin, director of communications for the American Red Cross' Central Pennsylvania Chapter.

The donations from local citizens were "phenomenal,'' Tobin said. "The outpouring of support from this community is unbelievable,'' Tobin said, as fire victims wandered in and out of the MCSO Building.

Word of the victims' plight spread over Facebook, and people began arriving at the MCSO Building with donations. There were piles of jackets and blankets, soap and new toothbrushes, cake and pizza, sliced turkey and ham and mashed potatoes.

"People came in droves,'' said Dawn Knull, a Middletown Borough Council member, as she stood among donated supplies at the MCSO Building. The effort was not surprising, she said. "This is Middletown. Every disaster we have had, something like this happens. Middletown people come together.''

For Lehman, the greatest necessity was a place to stay, and she found one – another apartment in Pineford, where she wants to remain. She left behind an apartment filled with memories – knickknacks and furniture she's owned for decades. "I have good insurance, and I can buy new,'' she said. "But I would hate to think I lost some things I've had a long time.''

When she walked out the front door of Holly Hall, she was struck by the serenity. "It was very calm,'' she said, until fire engines began to pull up and firefighters shouted for residents to evacuate the building.

Standing in the MCSO Building, surveying donated items, Lehman found it difficult to sum up her feelings about what happened.

"It takes a while to sink in,'' she said.

Fire victims who need supplies – clothing, toiletries and other items – can get them from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Monday, April 4 at the MCSO Building on Emaus Street, borough officials said.

A partial list of those who donated to the fire victims: Tattered Flag (clothing), the Antique Auto Museum in Hershey (jackets), Roberto's Pizza (food), the Brownstone Cafe (food), and several local churches, among others, borough officials said.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 05 April 2016 14:29

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Steel-High to cut ties with superintendent

steelhighlogoEllen Castagneto, superintendent of the Steelton-Highspire School District, will not be retained at the end of her current contract in June 2017. 

The Steelton-Highspire School Board voted 7-0 with no discussion on Thursday, March 17 to approve a resolution stating the board will seek other candidates because her contract will not be renewed. Castagneto remains an employee of the district although she has not worked at the school district's administrative offices since October 2015, when the board approved leave under the district's policy for Family Medical Leave Act.

Steelton-Highspire continues to pay Castagneto her full salary and benefits, although her FMLA leave expired in January, and she has not returned to work.

Next week's edition of the Press And Journal will publish more information on this developing story.

Last Updated on Friday, 18 March 2016 07:10

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