Police and firefighters discovered a large marijuana growing operation while investigating the gutted remains of a fire that claimed a two-home duplex yesterday morning on North Coal Street in Port Carbon that left four people homeless.

Flames could be seen shooting up from the roof when firefighters arrived on scene, according to neighbors.

Some of the confiscated items found on the second floor of 233 North Coal St. included more than 75 marijuana plants, six air conditioners, four 55-gallon drums filled with fertilizer and ceramic pellets, heat lamps, and 12-hour timers.

"The operation appeared to be very elaborate and well organized," said Michael Welsh, Port Carbon fire chief. "They even placed a false wooden frame, air conditioner and curtains behind a front window to keep anyone from looking into the home."

Scott D. Krater, the borough's fire marshal, stated that an electrical circuit overload in 233 North Coal St., a two-story apartment house, was the cause of the fire.

The two-story apartment home is owned by Dean Vermeersch, 53, according to whitepages.com. He lived on the first floor and told police he was leasing the second floor to "a person whom he believes is named Gary Rothenberger," borough Police Chief Jon J. Bowman said in court documents filed in the office of Magisterial District Judge David A. Plachko, Port Carbon.

According to the documents, Vermeersch rents the second floor to Rothenberger as storage space, but there is no written contract or lease. According to the online Schuylkill Parcel Locator Vermeersch bought 233 Coal St. on March 30 from Dale J. Smith for $14,000.

Multiple bags of marijuana were later discovered in the Vermeersch freezer downstairs.

"I wouldn't be surprised if they ultimately made the decision that had something to do with the electrical problems which caused the fire," said Schuylkill County First Assistant District Attorney Bill Reiley. "If that turns out to be the case, that could lead to even more charges being filed."

"In all the years I've been a police officer, I've never seen an operation this big or organized," said Chief Bowman.

Also destroyed in the blaze was 231 Coal St., a connected three-story home owned by Lamar E. Staller, 44, and his wife, Katrina M., 43, who have owned it since 1997. They lived there with their daughter, Becky, 14.

According to Welsh, all six of their cats died as the result of injuries suffered in the fire.

Welsh said the fire gutted all of 233 Coal St. and the upper floors of 231, and both buildings were unlivable.

Members of the American Red Cross offered assistance to both families.

Emergency personnel continued to battle hot spots in the upper part and back of 233 at 10:30 a.m.

"I guess we have to rebuild. That's our only option as of right now," said Lamar Staller, who works as a service center representative at KME-Kovatch Organization in Nesquehoning. "For now, I guess we'll be staying with friends and neighbors."