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Members of the Jerome Volunteer Fire Company are assisted Wednesday by Berkebile Excavating as they work to extinguish the smoldering rubble of the independent-living quarters at Laurel View Village in Davidsville. A blaze apparently caused by lightning destroyed 55 apartments at the facility, displacing nearly 120 residents, including 65 who lived in the apartments.

Nearly 120 residents at Laurel View Village could return to their rooms within a week, directors at the fire-ravaged Somerset County complex said Wednesday.

But 66 residents of 55 independent living apartments will have a much longer wait.

David Mishler, chief executive officer, said leaders hope to rebuild in a year and will help displaced residents with living arrangements in the interim.

Insurance terms allow residents to continue paying Laurel View, which will pick up their rent if they temporarily move into an approved residence during construction.

“You can live in another facility that we pay for through your monthly fee,” Mishler said.

As bulldozers demolished the twisted, still-smoking remains of the village’s independent-living wing, officials said fire walls helped to spare the personal-care and nursing wings. In fact, those wings didn’t even sustain much water or smoke damage.

“We’ll try to reoccupy the health-care and personal-care centers as early as next week,” Mishler said during a residents’ meeting at Kaufman Mennonite Church.

Although a damage estimate was not immediately available, Mishler said the figure will be in the millions of dollars – making the blaze the largest in memory locally in terms of property damage.

He said executives were planning to meet with insurance adjusters Wednesday afternoon.

Fire alarms did not function, but a main office buzzer alerted employees, who began evacuations.

“Apparently, the lightning bolt fried the system right away – all the low-voltage stuff,” Mishler said. Alarm systems and building design will be reviewed before reconstruction begins, he added.

“We are not sure that even a better-designed system would have saved the building,” Mishler said.

Staff will begin meeting individually with apartment residents on Monday to discuss their options, he said. Residents or their family representative can call Laurel View Village’s main number, 288-2724, to schedule an appointment. Additional resident meetings will be held in coming days to update those affected.

Residents of the 10 apartments not destroyed in the blaze may retrieve personal belongings beginning today. They should report to the main entrance, where escorts will take them to the apartments.

Those residences will remain uninhabitable until construction is completed, Mishler said.

Crews are collecting strongboxes and other salvageable items from the destroyed section. Those residents may report to the office to identify belongings. Beefed-up, 24-hour security began Wednesday night, Mishler added.

Conemaugh Township fire Chief Tim Bowman said at least 48 fire and EMS units responded to the blaze. Fire crews returned today to douse hot spots and search for personal items for residents, he said.

But considering the devastation, it was miraculous that two-thirds of the sprawling home was spared, said Jason Ober, assistant chief of the Richland Volunteer Fire Department and the officer-in-charge Wednesday as Conemaugh Township and other departments rested from the nightlong battle.

The fire apparently began when lightning struck the independent-living wing about 4 p.m. Tuesday, igniting the attic. All were evacuated safely, and no major injuries were reported.

Apartment resident Mildred Fluck, 92, praised responders and Laurel View staff for their efficient response.

“The employees did a good job getting everybody out,” Fluck said. “They are all so nice.”

While a lack of water pressure initially hampered efforts to fight the fire, Ober said volunteers decided early on that the wing was beyond saving.

“Sometimes, you have to make decisions that are tough,” he said. “We had to write off part of the building to save the rest. We saved quite a bit of it.”

The 6-inch water line that serves the village in a loop simply did not have enough capacity to handle three hydrants simultaneously, said Pat Mulcahy, operations manager for the Conemaugh Township Municipal Authority. The authority diverted more water to the area by shutting off valves to surrounding lines, and departments used tankers to haul in more.

“It was not enough, obviously, to supply three hydrants trying to be utilized at the same time,” Mulcahy said. “We were trying to send every bit of water we could to that site.”

About 70 independent-living residents are staying with family and friends. Mishler estimated it may take about a year to rebuild that wing.

“We’ll be meeting with them in the days to come to make plans for that process,” he said.

Nearly 200 residents were taken by bus to three nearby churches. Later, the 57 nursing-home residents were moved to the old Lee Hospital, while 61 from the personal-care section went to Maple Winds in Portage, Windber Hospital and The Patriot in Somerset.

The village’s 200 employees were called in to work and sent to the various sites where residents are being housed. They will continue to be paid, Mishler said.

“We’re telling all of our employees to come in for their normal shifts,” he said.

Bob Barrett of Hollsopple, a member of the board that oversees Laurel View, said the nursing and personal-care sections may reopen within three weeks.

“All we need to do is put a wall there, and we’re back in business,” Barrett said.

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