On Wednesday, when I heard chatter on the scanner then a call to evacuate the building, I grabbed my gear and ran out of our office. I could see the smoke billowing from Park Avenue.
I quickly flashed back to the fire at Waupelani Heights on July 4, 2013, and hoped this wouldn’t be as bad.
When I pulled up to The Park at State College on Blue Course Drive, the flames were extinguished but the damage was done. I started chatting with students all standing around taking photos and videos.
No one knew what to say as they watched, knowing their classmates may have been losing their semesters’ hard work and their belongings.
Friday afternoon I decided to swing by the complex and see what was going on. I ran into a pair of brothers staring at the building next to their car. Tom Lefebvre was in the shower of his third-floor apartment in Building 13 when the fire broke out. After throwing on clothes and running out, he stood back and watched.
The pair said they were lucky to have renters insurance and were just waiting for the OK to be escorted in to retrieve all their remaining possessions.
Interstate restoration, reconstruction and services had crews working their best to allow those residents into their homes. Project manager Josh Woolen said the left side of the building would be salvageable, but the right side, where the attic roof collapsed, will most likely have to be gutted.
His crew removed more than 400 pounds of charred lumber by Friday afternoon and shifted around all the debris. Fumes from the fire can be overwhelming, and the dangers require anyone entering the area to wear a hard hat, a paper mask and rubber gloves.
I could see into the worst of the 12 units in the building, apartment 309. Penn State sophomore and Navy veteran Tom Wert lived there with his three roommates. Luckily, several firefighters recognized the American flags around their apartment on Wednesday night and tried to grab some things for them.
He got back a flag from when he served, some foreign currency and Navy memorabilia. He hopes his dog tags are still are in his room. Wert figured his laptop can be replaced, and so can a flag, but not with the same meaning as the one from when he served.
The smell of smoke was strong on Wednesday night and lingered in my hair for hours. But that’s nothing compared with what remains among the memories — and the memories lost — for these residents.