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Former firefighter faces ‘worst nightmare’ as fire strikes his own home

December 3, 2018

Rich Hooks rushed to house fires for 37 years as a volunteer firefighter.

On Wednesday morning, he rushed to his wife and daughter after learning his own home was burning.

“I was at work,” he said, standing in the lawn of his home on La Bellevue Road in Vandergrift. “I flew from North Washington to here. I was here before an engine got on the scene.”

The fire was reported shortly after 8:30 a.m.

Hooks said his wife, Catherine, and their 11-year-old daughter -- their granddaughter who they recently adopted -- were home. He said they didn’t know the house was on fire until someone passing by saw smoke coming from the roof, stopped and alerted them.

Hooks said his wife inhaled some smoke, but that she and their daughter were otherwise OK.

“When I got here and knew those two were safe, it relieved my stress big time,” he said.

They got their dog out of the house safely. Firefighters tended to one of two cats, giving it water and oxygen on the front lawn before it was taken to a veterinarian. It wasn’t known where the other cat was.

Hook said he’s lived in the home for 20 years. He dropped insurance on it six months ago to help pay the attorney costs associated with adopting his granddaughter.

“I couldn’t afford everything,” he said.

Vandergrift No. 2 fire Chief Steve Potoka said the fire was electrical in origin, caused by wiring in the basement. The fire worked its way up to the second floor and the roof.

Firefighters from several departments responded and had the fire under control in about 45 minutes.

“The guys did a good job,” he said.

The house, however, is destroyed.

Next door neighbor David Williams said his grandmother was at his home helping him with his 10-month-old daughter. She woke him up when she smelled smoke, and he ran outside.

Williams said he didn’t see any fire, just dark smoke curling from the roof like a wave.

“Everything was from the roof,” he said.

Williams said there was enough smoke in his house that he didn’t want his daughter to be there, so she went with his grandmother.

Williams said his house was OK.

“We’ll see about the smoke in a couple days,” he said.

As firefighters were packing their gear, neighbors were already asking Hooks about his family’s needs, such as their clothing sizes. Hooks said he didn’t know where they’d be staying.

The American Red Cross of Greater Pennsylvania has been called out and will be meeting with the family to assess their needs, spokesman Dan Tobin said.

Hooks said he had been a volunteer firefighter in the area until six or seven years ago. He had been a member of the Markle Volunteer Fire Department in Allegheny Township, which was among those that responded to his home Wednesday.

“Fire was one of my worst nightmares,” Hooks said. “I was always very careful.”

Hooks was most grateful that his wife and daughter were OK.

“Everything else can be replaced,” he said.

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