Rush Township family counts blessings after fire

A Moshannon Valley family is learning about loss, the value of friendship and the meaning of Thanksgiving after losing their home in a fire Friday.

John Sanko will turn 92 on Sunday. He lived his whole life at 344 Phoenix Road in Rush Township, the old coal company-built house that was his parents’ home before it was his. He and his late wife raised their four sons there. Andrew and David Sanko still lived there with him.

That all ended in flames.

On Friday, Andrew Sanko went upstairs at about 1 p.m. to read a book. His cat, Chippy, slept at his feet. The blaze started accidentally, caused by an electrical heating unit. His father called to him, and when he ran downstairs, he found John on the floor in the living room and a wall covered in fire.

After helping his father, Andrew went back in to find his wallet and his cat upstairs. He couldn’t find Chippy.

The smoke was so thick, he barely found his way back out of the house. When he did, his face was covered in second-degree burns that would send him first to Altoona Regional Hospital, then to the burn center at UPMC Mercy in Pittsburgh.

“I didn’t even feel them,” said Andrew.

Today, the family is broken up. John and Andrew are staying in a room at the Harbor Inn in Philipsburg, while David is bunking with friends.

They are trying to find a new home to rent while they wait to see if they will be able to rebuild the old homestead. And they are taking stock of what they lost and what was saved.

Neighbors and members of their church, Nativity of the Virgin Mary Orthodox in Osceola Mills, have stepped up to help with immediate needs, such as clothes and shoes. They are still faced with dozens of other things to replace that don’t even occur to them until they are mentioned.

During a recent interview, they realized a number of things that they hadn’t thought about losing. Dishes, kitchen tools, towels and sheets, a hair dryer, Christmas decorations, John’s hearing aid, a walker and more.

But those things are easily replaced. David suggested donations of gift cards would be helpful because the family doesn’t know when they will have a new place to live. It is the things they can’t replace that hurt.

Pictures are often the first sting. They also lost about 50 teddy bears that had been collected over the years by Peter Sanko, the brother with Down syndrome who died several years ago. Then there were all their religious icons, as well as John’s World War II uniforms. And of course, Chippy, the cat that Andrew was given by WPHB disc jockey Sheldon Sharpless.

“You can figure how much you accumulate, how much stuff that can never be replaced,” said John.

There are things that have been saved. Andrew has made a few trips into the house, but the smoke alone makes it hard, not to mention the structural safety.

He has brought home Peter’s piggy bank, crackled and sooty, and an old horse from his childhood. John has a Nazi helmet and dagger he brought home from his time in Germany, but the knife barely slides out of the sheath anymore, shrunk by the fire’s heat.

They will spend Thanksgiving with family, and they hope to have a place to call home before Christmas.

“I’m trying to think happy thoughts,” said Andrew, “but it’s hard. This isn’t home.”