Questions emerge about bridge’s role in response to Rush Township fire

A Rush Township family lost its home to fire last week, and some are putting part of the blame on a bridge.

John Sanko, 91, and adult sons Andrew and David, lost their Phoenix Road home to an accidental blaze Nov. 22. The house lies just around a corner and a short ride up the road from the bridge that crosses the creek separating Centre County’s Rush Township from Clearfield County’s Osceola Mills. Columbia Fire Company is just two blocks on the other side of the bridge.

But Columbia trucks had to detour around town, back to state Route 53, through Spike Island, and loop back to get to Phoenix Road because that bridge is under construction. It was taken out of service earlier in the year, and an October reopening date came and went when repairs proved more extensive and required more steel than originally believed.

“That put us out of the way,” said Columbia Fire Chief Jerry Barnett. “We were the closest fire department. That is our coverage area.”

Andrew Sanko said he believed that if the bridge had been open, the damage might have been less.

The fire was not only a total loss of the property but claimed the life of the family cat, Chippy. Andrew sustained second-degree facial burns and was transported to UPMC Mercy in Pittsburgh.

Barnett, however, doesn’t think the difference was that stark.

“The fire still had a good start up the side and into the second floor and attic,” he said. “We did the best we could anyway.”

The state Department of Transportation is still planning to complete the repairs as soon as possible and see the bridge, which sees traffic connecting Osceola Mills and other local communities to state Route 350 and Interstate 99, reopened.

“The contractor on the project is currently working to make the needed repairs. Once those repairs are made, PennDOT will proceed with placing a surface on the roadway that will allow drivers to use the bridge through the winter. Our expectation at this point is to have the bridge open in early January,” said spokeswoman Marla Fannin. “Our concern on this project has not changed. We remain committed to making the necessary repairs in order to have a safe, structurally sound bridge that can be used by motorists for years to come.”