Fire Rips Through Building Filled with Comic Books in Old Forge

OLD FORGE -- Several fire crews responded to a blaze that tore through a building in Old Forge Tuesday morning.

It broke out in the 200 block of Sussex Street before 9 a.m. The building is a double-block home with storage in the back.

Neighbors tell us the owner built this addition specifically to store hundreds of thousands of comic books he had been collecting since he was 8 years old.

Smoke could be seen for miles as flames tore through the addition of the double-block home, but up close, neighbors saw a different story. They watched a lifetime collection of comic books and memorabilia burn away to almost nothing.

"I know he was a lifelong fan, so I'm sure he has a collection going back a long, long ways. It's a shame if it's all lost. The important thing though is that his family is OK, it seems," said David Romeo, Comics on the Green owner.

A neighbor salvaged one comic book from the collection of 225,000. He says he didn't even realize how many his neighbor actually had.

"I just saw it laying on the sidewalk there, and I'm like, 'I better just pick this up so when I see Al I can give it back to him,'" said John Kowalczyk.

The owner of the home used to own "Al's Comics" in Scranton.

David Romeo owns Comics on the Green on North Washington Avenue in Scranton and says even though they were business rivals, they were always friends.

"We got to know each other over time, and I know he did have a vast collection in his store, and I also know he must have had a vast collection of his own, as all of us store owners do," said Romeo.

And a vast collection it was. Fire crews describe the warehouse as being filled floor to ceiling with comic books which made the fire a tricky one to fight.

"We took a walk back there before and you can see some of them still in the pile, so it's kind of sad to see, so hopefully he'll be able to at least recover some of them," said Kowalczyk.

Four people live in the two units. One woman was taken to the hospital but is expected to be OK.

"Right now, I'm sure he's dealing with just the fact that maybe he lost part of his property or his home and that is family is OK. But when it sinks in, you realize the years and years and years and old memories you have in that collection. That is when it will sink in. That's when it will hurt," said Romeo.

Police tell us that because the warehouse was so tightly packed with so much memorabilia, they might never be able to determine where and how exactly the fire started.

Fire crews say there was also about 60 gallons of some sort of chemical stored here.

It was the ninth fire the American Red Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania responded to since Friday night.

"A very high amount, especially considering the weather is warm," said Red Cross communications manager Dave Skutnik. "Frequently when it gets very cold out, that's when we see the number of fires go up. So this is rather unusual, given how warm it has been."

Because the Red Cross is 95 percent run by volunteers, it has put some strain on the local organization.

"At this point, some of them are getting tired, having been out nine times just since Friday. As far as financial strains, we always encourage everyone to donate to the Red Cross and that money goes to help victims of fires just like this one."

Local fire departments aren't getting a break either. At least 12 engine companies from two counties fought the flames at a home in Old Forge.

"When we were returning to our station, we got headed out for this fire here in Old Forge, so we've been going since 5:00 this morning," said Fire Chief Jeff Hughes, Excelsior Hose Company Number 2.

Excelsior Hose Company Number 2 responded to a fire in Duryea in Luzerne County before being called to fight this fire in Lackawanna County.

"Very exhausting, guys took off work, they lose pay at work. But, it's part of the volunteer fire department. It's what we do."

American Red Cross officials say a working smoke alarm gives you a 50 percent better chance of getting out of a fire in your home.

"We had one of those installation events in the Poconos over the weekend and installed 200 smoke alarms just in case something like this should happen," said Skutnik.

The Red Cross tells us there were not working smoke detectors in this home.

Fire officials are still investigating the cause of both the fires in Duryea and Old Forge.

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