Memories of Union High School
BURGETTSTOWN – More than 50 years after Union High School burned, its exploding boilers showering the borough’s Main Street with bricks, nothing but an empty lot and a lonely, weed-choked staircase to nowhere remain.
Nearly 900 students were enrolled in the school and had been dismissed for less than 45 minutes before a janitor discovered a sparking electrical box on the school’s stage that ignited a fire that raged for more than three hours. The blaze was battled by volunteer firefighters from Burgettstown, McDonald, Hanover Township, Slovan and Midway. As the firefirefighters sought to contain the blaze, students, teachers, staff and borough residents returned repeatedly to the school to rescue records and valuable items.
School was dismissed at 4:12 p.m. March 21, 1963, and janitor Harry Reymer discovered the fire around 4:45 p.m. He told the school’s monthly newspaper, the Union Hi-Lite, “I was cleaning the balcony of the auditorium when I heard a light bulb explode in the ceiling near the front of the auditorium. Then smoke started coming out of the ceiling at that spot. The smoking area was too far away for me to get at. Just then, (bookkeeper) Mrs. (Mary) Tasz and (janitor) Mary Invernizzi came in and I told them to call the fire department.”
Baseball Coach McGraw and several baseball players remained in the building, practicing, as did several other staff members. They immediately began carrying items out of the building.
Less than 10 minutes later, firefighters responded. Raymer and James J. Tinney, Burgettstown Area School District supervising principal, had attempted to put out the fire, which had spread to the the false ceiling above the stage, with fire extinguishers. The firefighters faced a problem because the nearest fire hydrant was located on Church Street – 900 feet away from the high school, forcing them to connect hoses to a truck to pump the water, followed by another 200 feet of hose to the rear exit of the auditorium, where the fire was located. With fire hoses stretched across state Route 18, it was closed for three and a half hours.
From the March 28, 1963, weekly Burgettstown Enterprise: “(Tinney) was attempting to fight the flames with a fire extinguisher, but was warned by firemen to ‘get out before the ceiling collapses.’ Less than five minutes after the firemen arrived, the ceiling crumbled when lights were blown to the floor from the pressure being built up inside the ‘false ceiling.'”
Tinney told the Hi-Lite, “As I peered up to the roof of the stage and auditorium, the area was one sheet of flames. The firemen entered, and it was immediately apparent to them the entire roof area was in flames and there was little possibility to control the blaze. I was informed of the advanced stage of the fire and immediately proceeded to the office to direct evacuation of records and equipment.”
Burgettstown Fire Chief Walter Farner would later attribute the fire to faulty wiring, which caused a fire that traveled up the wall and smoldered beneath the stage’s false ceiling before discovery.
As the firefighters worked, the staff, students and townspeople worked to remove the records and equipment. Much of the records already had been removed to the Burgettstown Junior/Senior High School, then in its second year of construction. The school was expected to open that fall. Union High was surveyed by a team from the University of Pittsburgh in 1956 and, under the New England Score Card system, received a score of less than 18 percent, with the recommendation to abandon the school as soon as possible. Ground was broken in 1961 for the Burgettstown Junior/Senior High building, which was built to house 1,250 students.
Although the townspeople worked to remove as much as possible, the health, attendance and grade records; yearbooks and trophies; the school’s complete biology, chemistry and physics records; the 5,000-volume school library; all the band’s sheet music and some uniforms and instruments; and all athletic equipment were lost. Class rings, 1963 yearbooks and diplomas were saved. The school buses were removed from the garage and parked on a nearby street.
More than 150 firemen battled the fire for more than three hours, despite low water pressure. Once the ceiling collapsed, efforts were focused on preventing the fire from spreading to nearby buildings, including the Westminster Presbyterian Church. At the height of the fire, flames reached 50 to 60 feet above the three-story building, and when the building’s boiler exploded, Main Street was showered with bricks and rubble. The building continued to smolder into the small hours of the night.
By the next morning, March 22, 1963, the Irvin T. Miller Construction Co. began demolition of the few walls still standing. By that Saturday, less than two days after school was dismissed for the last time, the school was demolished.
After an emergency inspection by the State Public School Building Authority, a portion of the Burgettstown Junior/Senior High School was opened for seniors on March 29. Juniors resumed classes the following week as classrooms were completed.