New Castle police officers and a group of firemen proved themselves heroes last night during a blazing fire downtown.
They pulled one of their own from the burning building as flames leapt out the upstairs windows.
The fireman, Lt. John Onufrak Sr., had gone into the first floor with a hose to fight the fire from the inside when a wall and ceiling collapsed on him, according to witnesses at the scene.
But city police officers went into the fiery building without gear to help other suited-up firemen drag him to safety.
The fire was raging behind 105 E. Washington St. shortly before 8 p.m. last night, and smoke billowed into the air, drawing a crowd of spectators whose vehicles filled many of the downtown parking lots.
The building, on South Apple Way and owned by Tami Weingartner, formerly housed the Black Whale, a bar that had been closed since the 1970s.
A loud cheer rose from the crowd as Onufrak was pulled out of a side door.
Onufrak, conscious and talking to paramedics, was taken on a stretcher to an ambulance and transported to Jameson Hospital.
He went back to the fire station after his release last night, assistant chief Mark Panella said this morning, commenting, “He was bruised and banged up, but he’s going to be OK.”
The fire engulfed the second floor and flames were leaping out of the east side of the building, threatening to collapse and spread to the neighboring Butz Flowers building across the alley.
According to Panella, three firefighters were on the second floor — Tom Bulisco, Lt. Bobby Duncan and Onufrak.
“They made a move to get out of there because they felt it was time,” Panella said. “Just as they got down there, it all came down on them.”
Onufrak was trapped inside and his fellow firefighters had to cut the air pack off his back, he said. “He was wedged in the building.”
Running to Onufrak’s aid were New Castle police officers Jamie Bucker and David Viggiano, assistant fire chiefs Joe Bongivengo and James Donston; firefighters Guy Withrow, Duncan and Bulisco.
Joe Hooker DiThomas, a North Hill resident, watched the rescue with amazement, especially when he saw the two uniformed officers enter the building without protective gear.
Officer Bucker broke in the door of the burning building, he said, hearing Onufrak yelling for help.
“He’s the bravest police officer I ever saw,” DiThomas said of Bucker. “He put his whole body in there without any protection.”
DiThomas stood taking video footage as the firemen went inside and a wall collapsed.
“People were yelling, then the one very brave police officer broke in the door and dove into the building,” DiThomas said. He didn’t know Bucker’s name at the time.
He continued, “Several men went in. I could see them from their belts down. They carried him to safety and everybody cheered.”
DiThomas, who owns Highland Avenue Pizza, was downtown delivering a pizza when he saw the fire, and fire trucks already were on their way.
Bucker said Onufrak was about five feet inside the structure and a whole wall and ceiling collapsed on him.
“I was going around back to take pictures and I heard this guy screaming,” said Viggiano, who also went into the building without any protective gear. “Then I saw the wall partially collapse.”
He put out a call on his emergency radio that a fireman was trapped, “then I went inside and started to move stuff off of him,” Viggiano said.
“That was probably the scariest thing I’ve ever done,” he said, adding that the fire “was pretty well developed by then.”
“He got stuck between the roof and the floor,” fire chief Tom Maciarello explained of Onufrak’s ordeal. “Part of the roof was on his legs.” Maciarello said another outside wall was leaning about six inches, threatening to collapse. His fear was that a second wall was going to collapse while Onufrak was inside, he said.
“The side wall was bulging at the seams and we were worried. It was a real worry while we were pulling him out.”
Firefighters from the city, Shenango, Union and South New Castle Borough with the help of Shenango’s tower truck, managed to control the blaze, preventing it from spreading.
When the flames were roaring, they were almost touching Butz’s building, Maciarello said. He credits his crew for controlling the fire and keeping it from spreading to the storefronts and neighboring buildings.
The downtown section of East Washington Street was blocked off for about two hours.
Panella said this morning he was impressed with how the crews worked to contain the fire.
“It started with the collapse and they still stopped it,” he said, praising the direction of Maciarello.
“The chief made a good call. He called for a general alarm which got all the guys moving quickly.”