PITTSTON -- The city of Pittston and the borough of West Pittston are two places separated by the Susquehanna River, but forever linked by a single tragedy 25 years ago.
"It's something that happens tragically and it burns a hole in your memory," Chief James Rooney of the Pittston Fire Department said. "It's something you live with day after day."
During the early morning hours of Monday, March 15, 1993, firefighters from the Pittston, West Pittston, and other departments responded to fire at a stationary store on North Main Street in Pittston. Investigators at the time believed the cold temperatures from a historic blizzard made for tough conditions.
A heating system underneath the main floor of the building may have been running for hours. An electrical issue is believed to have ignited the flames. What started as a routine fire call soon turned tragic.
"The call for the fire came in somewhere around midnight, I believe it was," former West Pittston Fire Chief John Janczewski said. "It was during a blizzard because everything was pretty much shut down for like three days before that. I think that's what basically gave that fire the start that it had. It was a disaster right from the start."
"In the beginning, we didn't seem to think it was that big of a fire," Rooney said, who fought the fire while serving as assistant chief then. "It was burning underneath and the floor gave way and John and Lenny went down into the basement of the building and the building collapsed around them."
Captain John Lombardo of the Pittston Fire Department and assistant foreman Lenny Insalaco of the West Pittston Fire Department were operating together on a hose line. While attempting to locate the flames inside the building, the floor below them unexpectedly collapsed, sending the two men crashing into the basement.
Lombardo, 26 years old, and Insalaco, 20, would perish in the fire.
"Ironically, I spent the full day with my brother John, shoveling out in front of our house and in front of my dad's office," current Pittston mayor and brother of John, Mike Lombardo, said. "We spent a lot of time together and as I said, he lived in the apartment above my apartment and I heard him come down from the steps that night, never thinking that that knock was going to come on the door that next morning and that would be the next time I heard him leave or we spent time together."
Janczewski remembers being with Insalaco just hours before the tragedy.
"I have a four-wheel-drive pickup," Janczewski remembers. "I always did. I drove into a pile of snow. It raised the truck up off the wheels and I couldn't get it out. Lenny had a little Toyota pickup and I had a full-size Ford. He came up with a chain or whatever he had in the back of his truck. He put it on there and the little Toyota pickup pulled the big Ford pickup out of the snow. It was fun."
The Insalaco family didn't want to talk on camera for this story but they gave us a statement:
"25 years has done little to diminish our feeling of loss...Lenny was the oldest of our four children. Even though there was a 10-year difference in age from the first to last, he had a way of connecting with all of them...We can't say enough about the past and present members of the organizations he belonged to and the Pittston Fire Department. They have been there to help and support us whenever we needed."
On Kennedy Boulevard in Pittston sits a monument honoring Lombardo and Insalaco. Their lives might have been lost in the line of duty in March of 1993, but their memories will live on forever. Every piece of fire equipment that the Pittston Fire Company owns bears Lombardo's initials.
Meanwhile, in West Pittston, a reminder of Insalaco's sacrifice is on a fire engine. A bridge connecting the two communities remembers both men.
The Insalaco family has also established a scholarship at Wyoming Area High School awarded annually based on community service.
"They've inspired a whole new core of volunteers," Lombardo said. "While we want to step back and talk about all the hard parts about it, there's some really positive things to come out of it. Would we rather that not have happened? Absolutely, but I think we've been able to find some good in it," he added. "There's not anything that's more important than volunteerism and that's a clear example of it."
25 years later, two communities are still finding inspiration from two heroes whose lives were taken too soon, two men whose names will live on forever.