Fire chief: Fan considered possible source of blaze that destroyed historic Pa. metal forge

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Fan malfunction may have sparked Pa. forge fire

GROVE CITY, Pa. — Fire officials in western Pennsylvania say a malfunctioning fan may have been responsible for the blaze that destroyed a historic metal forge that made ashtrays for the ill-fated German airship the Hindenburg and did custom work for Walt Disney.

The blaze started at about 1:30 p.m. Saturday in the workshop at the Wendell August Forge, where bronze pieces such as awards and trophies were being made, said Jeff Badger, chief of the Grove City Volunteer Fire Department.

“What it possibly is, is that they were spraying lacquer and the vent fan malfunctioned,” Badger said Sunday. “That’s the nearest we can figure it right now.”

Badger said about 100 firefighters battled the flames using equipment from 21 fire departments. About 25 employees and 15 customers were able to escape unharmed from the 25,000-square-foot structure that housed the factory and gift shop.

Wendell August president Will Knecht said the company planned to rebuild “as soon as possible,” and in the meantime operations would continue online and at the firm’s other locations in Exton, Pa., and Berlin, Ohio.

“It was a landmark, and it will be a landmark once again,” he told reporters Saturday.

Wendell August, which started in Brockway, Pa., in 1923, produces heirloom-quality personalized metal pieces.

The firm made ashtrays given as gifts to Hindenburg passengers on the “Millionaires Flight,” a promotional cruise over New England in the fall of 1936. The aluminum ashtrays featuring a moveable glass replica of the Hindenburg filled with fuel. The following year, the hydrogen-filled Hindenburg burned and crashed in Lakehurst, N.J., killing 35 of the 97 people on board and a Navy crewman on the ground.

Wendell August said the Grove City workshop also produced a dozen bronze plates commemorating the SALT II weapons treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union, towel basins shaped like turtles for a pool at one of the Rockefeller homes and customized pieces for firms such as Coca-Cola, Hershey, Walt Disney, Pizza Hut, MetLife and Walmart.

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