Spotlight: Historic fire in Aquashicola
It’s been five decades since a menacing fire tore through the Helmuth property in the heart of Aquashicola.
For several firefighters, the trail of destruction the inferno left in its wake lives on in their minds.
So memorable, that members of the Aquashicola Fire Department continue to refer to it as the “Helmuth fire.”
This past February firefighters marked the 50th anniversary of the notorious incident.
The fire started at 9:30 a.m. Feb. 6, 1971, in the Fernbrook cutting room and spread throughout the building, consuming the Fernbrook operation and the residence of John and Kathleen Helmuth at 4000 Forest Inn Road.
The Palmerton Coca-Cola Co., which occupied the basement, also lost numerous Coke machines and hundreds of wooden soda cases.
A total of 45 firefighters battled smoke and flames inside the building across from the old post office.
The Helmuths evacuated their home, which also houses the offices of the Towamensing Mutual Fire Insurance Co., as well as the cutting department of Fernbrook Sportswear.
Firefighters from Palmerton and Aquashicola arrived on scene to fight the fire as flames spread into the office where the insurance company records were kept. Lehighton Fire Department and Trachsville Fire Company also responded to the scene.
Fire reports were that the fire started in a storage room of the Fernbrook operation on the second floor, and quickly spread throughout the entire building, which once was Helmuth’s Furniture Store.
By the time the blaze had ceased, including the contents of the building, the damage totaled over $100,000.
The building was a total loss.
The cause of the fire wasn’t determined.
Firefighters recount the destruction
Rory Koons, president of the Aquashicola Fire Department, recounted what it was like on that horrific day.
“As a junior in high school, I was on the first arriving engine and witnessed flames rolling out of the front door of the Fernbrook cutting room, which already extended into the Helmuth residence and eventually throughout the entire structure,” Koons said. “We remained on the scene for 30 hours and made numerous trips back to the scene throughout the next week to extinguish hot spots. As temperatures plummeted throughout the night, our fire hoses froze into the street and had to be chopped out of the ice to be freed.”
Koons has been posting some of the larger scale fires the department has had on the Love My Hometown Facebook page on or near their anniversary.
“From a personal perspective, it was one of my first “large or big one” that I had participated in and responded to as an active volunteer,” he said. “I had just legally joined the fire company eight months prior and was waiting for my first big fire. The Helmuth Fire satisfied that desire and sparked my interest in the fire service.”
Koons said the Helmuth Building and family were icons in the Village.
“At the time of the fire the building served as a cutting room for Fernbrook Sportswear along with a storage and repair shop for the Palmerton Coca-Cola Company,” he said. “In addition, a portion of the large showroom of the main portion of the building served as a furniture store for the Helmuth family.”
Koons said Charles Helmuth was running the furniture business at the time of the fire and had occupied the entire building as a furniture store in previous years and had downsized accommodating the Fernbrook operation only a few years before the fire.
Meanwhile, he said John Helmuth was owner of the Towamensing Mutual Fire Insurance Co. and was operating the business out of his residence adjacent to the showroom.
“As a young newspaper boy, I recall how beautiful their home was and often got inside to collect for the Morning Call,” Koons said. “After the fire John and Kathleen moved the business and their residence to the apartment building directly across the street from the Aquashicola Fire Company and remained there I think, until John’s passing.”
“Like death and disease, fire does not discriminate.”
Chris Kegel was with Fire Co. No. 1 and operated an engine that was positioned on a fire hydrant at Columbia Avenue and relayed water to the fire scene.
Kegel, who was 25 at the time, said he pumped water from the hydrant.
“At the end of the last block of Columbia Avenue, they needed some extra water,” Kegel said. “We hooked to the hydrant and gave them whatever water we could to assist them.”
Kegel said it was a fire he’ll never forget.
“It was quite devastating,” he said.
Dennis Behler and Larry Arner were with West End Fire Co. No. 2 and were battling the blaze in the rear of the structure and basement where Coca-Cola had their equipment stored.
Behler, who was 19 at the time, clearly recalled the scene.
“We put our engine into the creek and we were drafting water out of it and I remember we pulled a 2½-inch hose over wooden fence that ran behind the building and put a plate pipe nozzle under the hose and tied the hose to the fence,” Behler said. “Then we took hand lines and we went to the side and we were fighting the fire from the side.”
Behler said the outdoor elements were brutal.
“It was really cold that day, (there was) a sheet of ice, we walked up to the building, and we’d open up the hose, but the force would slide us backward on the ice,” he said. “This was one of the bigger fires in the area.”
Behler added, “We didn’t have all the equipment that’s available nowadays.”
“They had called Lehighton’s aerial truck down to fight the fire,” he said. “That’s when West End decided we were going to start a fund drive to get an aerial, and in 1976, we got the snorkel.”
Arner, who was 17 at the time, had just joined the fire company recently at that point.
“I know it was at nighttime, it was very very bitter cold,” Arner said. “We actually parked the truck and put a hard sleeve suction into the stream because the stream was flowing fairly well.”
Arner said that Kermit “Dutch” Serfass was the pump operator for the truck that night.
He said that they had lines off the truck and it was snow packed and icy and then the water started building up, and that went on for couple hours.
“I remember it started to get bright and Rory said, ‘I got to deliver my newspapers’?” Arner said. “I remember going with Rory to help him deliver his newspapers, and then we went back to the fire.”
Arner said it was more cleaning and packing that they were doing.
“I never went inside the building that I recall,” he said. “Most of the fighting was done from the outside at that time.”
Much like his colleagues, the incident has stuck with Arner all these years later.
“It was cold, that’s one thing I remember, the water and trying to hold the hose,” he said. “It was a large building, Dutch, the truck, slipping and sliding, the location, and delivering the papers with Rory.”