SHAMOKIN — Eighty-eight-year-old Bill Jaworski, who risked his life helping priests remove sacred items from St. Edward’s Church while it was burning 50 years ago, vividly recalls the disastrous fire today.
Jaworski, who has resided with his wife, the former Patricia Bartholomew, at 225 N. Rock St. for 61 years, said he was home when the fire broke out during the early-morning hours of Holy Thursday near his residence.
After spotting the fire, Jaworski said he rushed over to the church to assist Father Woodrow Jones, the pastor, and his assistant, Father William Haviland, in removing sacred items from the church.
“We stayed in the church trying to get as many items out as we could until the firefighters chased us out for our own safety,” he said.
He added, “We took some of the holy items into the rectory, while some of the others we kept at my house, which is right behind the rectory,” Jaworski said.
“I was inside the church with the priests when it was burning and I remember seeing flames coming down from the ceiling. I know the fire department didn’t agree with me, but a candle didn’t burn the church down. I believe a bird picked up a lighted cigarette and dropped it in the bell tower. That’s always been my theory on how the fire started.”
No official cause was ever listed for the church fire due to the extensive damage.
Jaworski, who was an active parishioner at St. Edward’s since 1964, said he could feel the intense heat at his home from the fire. But, he and his family didn’t have to be evacuated from the residence, which escaped damage.
“Father Woody and I were like brothers,” Jaworski said. “We got along very well. He was a great man. He was a Marine who had both his legs shot up in the Pacific. I would do anything for him and just wanted to help him and Father Bill any way I could during and after the fire.”
Jaworski and his 84-year-old wife, who have been married for 68 years, have seven children, all of whom were baptized in St. Edward’s Church, which is now Mother Cabrini Church. Their youngest son, Jim, made his first Holy Communion on the same day as his father.
Patricia Jaworski said, “It was an awful night. The fire was terrible. I remember all of us going up to the back bedroom to see everything that was going on. It was devastating.”
Peggy Ferrari, of 131 N. Rock St., is another neighbor who recalls the catastrophic blaze.
“I lived through that fire with my family,” Ferrari said. “I remember having to move out of the house overnight with my baby girl and young son because firefighters were concerned that the wind could possibly shift the fire in our direction. We stayed at my parents, but my husband, Jim, was able to remain at our house overnight.
“I remember looking out our back bedroom windows, which were hot from the fire. It was awful to see the church on fire,” she said.
Ferrari and her husband also were active members of St. Edward’s Church for many years.
Bob Spears, who currently lives at 135 N. Rock St., lived at 129 N. Rock St. at the time of the fire.
“I remember embers from the fire landing at a lumber company a couple blocks away,” Spears said. “I remember the firemen spraying water on the fire for hours. It was a horrible thing to see and one of the worst fires in the city’s history.”
The Jaworskis, Ferrari and Spears are members of Mother Cabrini Church.
SHAMOKIN — Harry Deitz, who worked as a photojournalist and editor for the Shamokin News-Dispatch and The News-Item for more than half a century and still covers fires, accidents and other events for the newspaper at age 92, recalled the day he was pressed into duty to cover the St. Edward’s Church fire 50 years ago today.
“I was sound sleep when I got the first call at about 2:05 a.m that heavy smoke was coming from the roof on the western side of St. Edward’s Church,” he said. “Seconds later, another call came from my wife’s aunt, Jane Smith, who lived on Spurzheim Street. I was starting out the kitchen door to the carport and the phone rang again. It was Paul MacElwee, the city editor, who said a second alarm was sounded from an electric call box in the Shamokin Street sector.”
On the drive into Shamokin, Deitz contemplated the best route to take to get to the scene as quickly as possible.
“I reached Sunbury Street and instead of turning right onto Shamokin Street, I figured I’d go south on Franklin Street to gain better access to the area, which already was crowding up with fire trucks and other emergency vehicles,” he said.
After parking on Webster Street in front of St. Edward’s gym, Deitz said he spotted flames going up toward the roof on the western side of the church building.
With his Mamiya C330 camera in hand, he started taking photographs while on the run and was able to get some shots of the flames and heavy smoke.
Deitz said firefighters were directing streams of water toward the roof in hopes of preventing flames from reaching the church tower 150 feet above ground level. But he said within 20 minutes, the tower was ablaze, spewing sparks and fire debris over the immediate area and even blocks away from the church.
Deitz recalled Shamokin Fire Commissioner Claude Kehler describing the blaze as a “fire storm,” the worst in Shamokin’s history.
Because there was a constant east wind that fanned the flames spreading over the church roof and tower, Deitz said Kehler was concerned that the burning embers would reach a lumber company yard only four blocks away, which they did.
Deitz said Father Woodrow Jones, the church pastor, his assistant, Father William Haviland, several nuns and a number of church members arrived at the scene and removed valuable artifacts and church records from the rectory and sections of the church where the fire had not yet reached.
“I remained on the scene until the fire was brought under control around 6 a.m.,” Deitz said. “I then went to the office and began writing a story and processing what photos I had at that point. Later that afternoon and evening, I joined Wilbur Reddinger, the city police detective, in taking photos of the interior, where the fire was believed to have started.”
Deitz said one of the photos, which showed the candle vigil rack, proved to be the key to why the fire started.
He said Reddinger studied an 8x10 print of the photo very closely and observed that all of the candles were intact except for one. Reddinger said one of the candles and its holder — a metal casing that was previously secured on the rack by a bolt and nut attached to the bottom — were not intact.
“Somehow, the bolt became dislodged and the weight of melting wax caused the metal holder to tilt over and eventually fall from the rack onto the floor,” Deitz said. “Wilbur’s expertise as an investigator determined that the burning candle had remained lit after falling and its flame spread from the floor in front of the candle rack to the adjoining wall before climbing up the interior of the wall to the roof and steeple.”
Deitz said the St. Edward’s Church fire was one of a number of cases Reddinger solved during his career as a police officer. Reddinger, who now lives in Shamokin Dam, later served as a district magistrate for about 20 years. He also was a detective in the Northumberland County District Attorney’s Office and began his career in law enforcement as a Catawissa police officer.
A photo Deitz took in natural light at the height of the flaming church tower was transmitted throughout the world by the Associated Press and later was awarded first place in the AP’s annual Best Photo of the Year Contest.
SHAMOKIN — A proposed rails-to-trails project and upcoming community events were the main topics of discussion during council’s workshop Wednesday night.
SEDA-Council of Governments Revitalization Coordinator Betsy Kramer advised council that a steering committee behind the proposed trail between Sunbury and Mount Carmel held its first meeting. She explained that the Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area (AOAA) owns approximately 10 miles of railroad bed, between the southeastern-end of Sunbury to Paxinos, that would be part of the project.
In 2014, the AOAA acquired the dormant 75-acre property in Shamokin and Upper Augusta townships for $1 from Northumberland County. The portion of railroad bed is largely parallel to Snydertown Road. In November 2019, the AOAA was named the recipient of a $50,600 grant to prepare a trail study.
“It would stretch from Sunbury to Mount Carmel, which would make Shamokin a major hub in that trail,” Kramer said of the project. “This would be a non-motorized trail. It’s a really cool project for the City of Shamokin.”
Kramer estimates that it will take nine months to complete a feasibility study, but noted that a trail could be used to increase tourism and economic development. She added that there is potential to connect the trail to the Roaring Creek Tract of the Weiser State Forest in Bear Gap.
In 2019, the city purchased four lots along Commerce Street, which Administrator Robert Slaby said at the time was to avoid potential litigation and develop more parking. The purchase of the former railroad property cost $90,000, according to county tax records.
Mayor John Brown stated Wednesday that the city intends to incorporate the land into the rails-to-trails project.
In other business, the city received correspondence from the Shamokin Area Businesses for Economic Revitalization (SABER) to conduct “Independence on Independence” from noon to 9 p.m. on July 3. The group said the event would include vendors, a talent show and would coincide with the Music in the Park concert series at Claude Kehler Community Park.
SABER asked for several streets to be closed as well as a temporary lifting of the city’s open container policy.
Dennis Kaleta, of Lost Mine-d Brewing Co., asked to close a section of West Spruce Street and to also temporary lift the open container policy during an undetermined weekend in May to celebrate the first active brewery in Shamokin in 46 years.
The requests from SABER and Kaleta led to a discussion between council members whether attendees of such events should be allowed to bring their own alcohol.
“What happens if people show up with a half barrel to watch the entertainment,” Brown asked. “Cheap beer in large qualities is going to cause problems.”
In a letter addressed to the City of Shamokin and Coal Township, Citizens for a Better Community (CBC) asked to hold an approximate 25-minute fireworks display shot from atop the Glen Burn Bank on July 3, with a rain date of July 4, as well as curbside collections.
The Veterans Of Foreign Wars (VFW) intends to hold its annual Memorial Day march, ending with a service on Lincoln Street, on May 31.
Council strongly indicated they would approve requests from CBC and the VFW at their regular meeting Monday.
SUNBURY — Reports that the staff of the Northumberland County Jail is down by 20 is not a “major concern” for Northumberland County Commissioner Chair Sam Schiccatano.
During Wednesday’s county prison board meeting, Warden Bruce Kovach announced the staff is currently down 20 officers.
“We are actively recruiting,” said Kovach, who attended the meeting by phone.
According to information contained in Kovach’s report, which was released during the meeting, the jail currently has 59 full-time officers and one part-time officer. In addition, two full-time records officers are employed, along with four administrative personnel.
As of April 6, the prison population was 194, with 162 men and 32 women. Of the 192, 14 inmates are being housed for Union County, 12 for Snyder, eight for Schuylkill and one for Columbia.
Following the meeting, Schiccatano said the jail has never had the 20 short staff members mentioned by Kovach.
“That’s a number that was brought up way back,” Schiccatano said. “We are down guards, we are down personnel. That’s mostly because ... nobody’s applying.”
He said the jail is still able to operate well.
“We have run the prison successfully,” Schiccatano said. “Our prison population is down almost two-thirds to what it was.”
For March, Kovach reported the jail’s payroll was up by $4,000 over the prior month due to staff working overtime to cover vacant positions.
“I would like to bring my staffing numbers up to give my guys a break,” Kovach said. “My guys are working really hard for us.”
Kovach also reported that COVID-19 is under control among staff and inmates.
Currently, he said one inmate is in isolation due to testing positive. In addition, one correction’s officer and three support staff are quarantined at home due to testing positive.
He explained that support staff consist of food service and medical providers who work for contractors.
“I feel we are doing a good job,” Kovach said. “Staff are doing a good job to keep things clean and sanitary.”
Commissioners Joe Klebon and Kym Best were both absent from the meeting, along with District Attorney Tony Matulewicz. Assistant District Attorney Richard Aime represented Matulewicz’ office at the meeting.
SUNBURY — A 25-year-old Elizabethville woman accused of attempted murder by arson related to a 2019 fire in Mount Carmel is scheduled to face a trial next month.
During a pre-trial conference Monday, Misty Dunbar, who is represented by public defender John Broda, told Northumberland County Judge Paige Rosini that she plans to take her case to trial, with jury selection set for May 10.
Dunbar turned down a plea offer from the district attorney’s office in which she would plead guilty to a felony of aggravated arson and receive a sentence of 22 to 36 months in state prison.
Dunbar, who has been free on $1 bail since May, is charged by Mount Carmel police with 13 offenses including attempted murder, aggravated arson, causing or risking a catastrophe and reckless endangerment.
Dunbar and Michelle Rhoads, 25, of Mount Carmel, were charged the day after a fire destroyed 434 N. Walnut St., extensively damaged 432 N. Walnut St., and left three people homeless on Aug. 13, 2019.
Following the incident, Dunbar told police she set the fire at the residence of Kelly Witmer, 37, and her 35-year-old boyfriend, Jason Dillow, of 434 N. Walnut St., in alleged retaliation for being thrown out of Witmer’s former home on North Vine Street.
Rhoads pleaded guilty Aug. 7 to a felony of aggravated arson and was sentenced Oct. 27 by Rosini to 2 1/2 to 5 years in state prison.
Rhoads was given credit for 377 days previously served in prison and was ordered to pay a $100 fine plus restitution in the amounts of $13,335 to Jason Dillow; $35,000 to Edward Koblinski, the third victim; and $58,247.15 to National Subrogation Services.
Editor’s note: This article by longtime Shamokin fire commissioner and safety director Claude E. Kehler Jr. appeared in the July 1971 publication of Fire Engineering. An accompanying photo of the fire taken by News-Item photographer Harry Deitz, which showed flames shooting from the steeple of St. Edward’s Church, was transmitted around the world by The Associated Press. The photo won first place in the annual AP Best Photo of the Year Contest.
SHAMOKIN — In Shamokin, St. Edward’s Church has long been looked upon as a historic landmark by area residents.
The structure was the first church in the world to be lighted by electricity and the wiring was installed under the personal direction of Thomas A. Edison. St. Edward’s, a large stone and wood church, stood for 99 years and was a fire chief’s nightmare because of the numerous catwalks and false partitions.
At approximately 2 a.m. last April 8, a passerby smelled smoke in the vicinity of the church. He walked six blocks to City Hall, where fire and police dispatch headquarters are located, and informed the duty watch. The dispatcher notified two police cruisers, which went to the scene to investigate. With the aid of spotlights, the police officers noticed smoke issuing from louvers in the 150-foot-tall bell tower, and city box 112 was immediately struck.
Moments before the box was struck, Engine 3 of the Shamokin Fire Department was informed of a possible fire by dispatch headquarters. Under the command of Captain Britton Longshore, this engine company was en route from quarters several blocks away scant seconds before the alarm was struck.
Engine 3, an attack pumper, took up a position directly in front of the church. The main doors were locked but, after using forcible entry, preconnected attack lines were advanced down the center aisle, where a visible fire was burning in the southwest corner of the altar area. This fire was quickly extinguished. Out in the street, four more engine companies, one ladder truck, a rescue unit and an ambulance were filling a first-alarm assignment.
These forces were under the command of Chief Robert Manney, his assistants Louis Gaydon and John Fedorko, and Fire Commissioner Claude Kehler. Manney entered the basement area, but no fire was discovered there.
In the meantime, the crew of Engine 3 continued their investigation of the main church area. Fire officers noticed too much heat and smoke were present to have come from the original fire and a check of the ceiling and wall areas was begun. At this time, fire was discovered behind the walls, traveling toward a false ceiling and cockloft 78 feet above the main floor. It is believed that fire had already entered these areas before the arrival of firefighters.
Engine companies made hydrant connections and the aerial ladder was raised to the roof to check for the extension of fire. Men from Engines 3 and 4 donned breathing apparatus and advanced up the stairs to the top of the church to cut the fire off and prevent its travel across the false ceiling toward the bell tower. This effort was too late, however, for flames were already traveling up the inside of the tower.
In the main part of the church, the ceiling began to fall and fire spewed from the hanging lights some 70 feet above firefighters’ heads. Flames also broke through the roof and presented a raging inferno. Within 15 minutes after the first alarm, the entire bell tower and roof were a mass of flames. Two ladder pipes and hose lines from five engine companies, 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5, were quickly placed in service.
At approximately 2:20 a.m., Manney and I ordered a general alarm, and mutual aid was put into effect. Four additional engine companies arrived from Coal Township with Chief Robel and Assistant Chief Neary in command and an engine from Trevorton also responded to the scene. Under mutual aid assignments, empty stations were occupied by other companies from Coal Township.
Fire crews were ordered from the building as positions became untenable and city Engines 2, 3 and 5 were quickly moved as cracks appeared in the base of the bell tower.
Engines were moved with such haste that the crew of Engine 2 did not even take time to detach their lines, which were torn from the couplings. All companies reached safe positions just as the 150-foot tower crashed into the street, bringing telephone wires with it. Some hand lines were abandoned and consequently were buried under tons of debris.
Because of the large amount of burning debris blown about by a high wind, flaming embers fell over a four or five-block area. Coal Township Chiefs Robel and Neary were informed by radio to “stay loose and cruise the area to put out spot fires.” These spot fires were developing at a rapid rate and firefighters concentrated their efforts on saving the area from destruction.
Officials ordered the immediate evacuation of all residents from the threatened district. Flames were coming from the roof of a school across the street from the church and a house on the southeast corner had fire in several locations. On the latter structure, shingles began smoldering on the side facing the church and aluminum screens melted from their window brackets.
Next door to St. Edward’s is the church rectory. Early during the fire, a 2 1/2-inch line was advanced into this building, up the stairs, through a bedroom and out onto the roof to protect this exposure. Later, the officer in charge of Ladder 3 repositioned his ladder to bring the streams from his unit into play between the church and rectory. One ladder pipe nozzle was placed on full fog and this stream protected the rectory from fire damage. The exterior of the priests’ home was scorched, but there was no other fire or water damage.
At the same time, a lumber yard several blocks away received a hail of burning embers, and shortly a working fire was in progress. Quick action by a township engine company prevented another possible multiple alarm fire. Four doors south of the doomed church, a fire started in a dwelling, but efforts of an engine under the command of a chief officer quickly contained it.
City emergency and rescue squads were kept busy when a resident of the area had an apparent heart attack. The victim was given mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, closed heart massage and oxygen, but he was pronounced dead on arrival at Shamokin State General Hospital. A Shamokin firefighter was treated there for smoke inhalation. There were no other firefighter casualties.
The fireground became ice-covered from 15 streams of water, including master streams. So much headway had been gained by the fire, however, that these streams had little effect and the historic building was destroyed.
The fire started in the area of the vigil candles and apparently traveled upward through partitions to the false ceiling. The bell tower, with its open louvers, acted like a chimney and caused the fire to move at a tremendous speed.
It was apparent that the fire had been burning for some time because of the extent of the fire when the first units arrived. A local resident stated that he had smelled smoke as early as midnight.
In a fire of this type, fast attack is imperative and all efforts must be made to prevent the fire from traveling through false ceilings, crawl spaces and bell towers, where accessibility is limited. Maximum efforts by firemen prevented a districtwide conflagration, but the losses ran into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
By 6:30 a.m., the fire was under control, but firefighters remained at the scene throughout the day over hauling. There were no injuries to fire personnel.
All firefighters and units involved were commended by the mayor (Frederick “Fritz” Reed) and City Council as well as by the citizens of the area for their fast response and efforts.