LOCK HAVEN - Someone intentionally torched the historic TKE house Wednesday night, and the three-story building will be razed either today or tomorrow.
"It is an arson fire," city Fire Chief Bob Neff said Thursday afternoon, after city officials, police, state troopers and others gathered earlier yesterday to sift through the rubble and view the damage at the burned-out structure at 245 W. Main St.
The blaze also damaged the adjacent Rosamilia, Brungard and Rosamilia law offices at 241 W. Main St., though Neff was quick to point out swift action by firemen from throughout the county saved that building from being destroyed.
Huge flames and thick black smoke poured from the former TKE fraternity house at the height of a fire late Wednesday night.
After going through the former TKE property, owned by Charles and Bonnie Rosamilia, looking for clues, investigators found it was intentionally set.
"Someone set a fire on the porch at the TKE house, on the side next to the Rosamilia house," Neff said. "The state police fire marshal and the fire marshal K-9 unit were here (Thursday) morning and the dog hit on something - I don't think they even know what - some type of accelerant the dog is trained to detect. It was detected alongside the building on the porch."
Now, Neff said, the blaze has turned into a criminal investigation under the purview of the city police department.
Meanwhile, the chief said, the shell of a building is a safety hazard and the Rosamilias plan to have the building razed either today or tomorrow.
"I talked to Tom Rosamilia and he has been in contact with a demolition crew and they will work on the demolition as early as (Friday), possibly the next day," Neff said. "They are working diligently to get it torn down so there are no more incidents there."
The fire occupied the best efforts of a half-dozen fire companies into the early hours Thursday. The last unit was released and cleared for other duties by the Clinton County Communications Center shortly after 5 a.m. Thursday.
Thankfully, it was primarily contained to the TKE building and caused mostly exterior damage to the neighboring law firm building. Neff estimated the damages at $10,000.
"They had some damage to the siding and windows, and minor damage to the interior," he said. "The fire got into the window in between the two buildings, and got into the partition. It then headed up the partition from the second floor to the third floor and in the corner of the eaves. It also went through some vinyl soffit and started to go through there as well.
"The fire was mostly contained to inside the wall, and no really expensive damage... Maybe $10,000 with damage to the exterior, siding and windows and some drywall work inside."
A message on the answering machine at the law office said that business would be closed until "sometime next week" due to the fire at the TKE house.
Neff praised the efforts of the volunteers who battled the blaze from the Lock Haven Fire Department, and the Mill Hall, Dunnstown, Castanea, Flemington, Beech Creek-Blanchard and Renovo fire companies, along with the Lock Haven EMS.
"We had an excellent response," he said. "We had no issues and no water supply problems, we had plenty of that. It worked about as well as it could have worked.
"I am extremely proud of the fact there were two houses, 30 feet apart, one was fully-involved when we got there and one was starting to burn and we contained the fire from burning the other house. I am extremely excited about that.
"There was a good potential for both of those houses to burn," Neff continued. "We got inside and did a fine job of getting the fire out and preventing the other house from burning."
Neff said he had no intentions of sending anyone inside the TKE house to battle the blaze since it had been sitting vacant for years and had been condemned.
"When I got there and went through the five-way intersection, I couldn't even hardly see because of the smoke," he said. "I had no intention of going inside until we had the fire controlled and out from the outside and the routine overhaul. If we do go into one of those houses, that would just be waiting to kill somebody."
At one point volunteers had to scurry as part of the wall came down in between the two properties. However, Neff said, no one was hurt during the fire attack.
As the more than 100 volunteers battled the two-alarm blaze at the three-story wood structure, hundreds more onlookers were on hand to see the devastating fire, as smoke filled the entire city.
Firemen around the scene called the blaze a "surround and drown" because the building has been vacant and unsightly for years and had been condemned.
As a matter of fact Rosamilia planned to demolish the old fraternity house and a hearing on tearing down the building had been scheduled for next Monday.
The TKE fraternity house was previously known as the William H. Mayer House, It was built by William H. Mayer, a member of Abraham Lincoln's cabinet, in 1860.