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Residents of Trail Blazer Apartment Building gathered on the complex’s lawn for a question-and-answer session Friday, as well as a tour of the site where the Aug. 1 fire started.

SHARPSVILLE—Before Ray Andel’s tenants left the picnic on the lawn of Trail Blazer Building Apartments, the property owner wanted to make sure the still-displaced residents had a chance to “face the dragon.”

Fire broke out on the ground floor of the schoolhouse-turned apartment complex in the early-morning hours on Aug. 1 and displaced 22 residents due to severe smoke damage. A resident at the apartment complex, 25-year-old Courtney Speir-Chrastina, has been charged with starting the fire.

Andel organized the picnic Friday to answer questions from the still-displaced residents and give an update on the status of the building. But the property owner also hoped to provide his tenants with some closure by showing them the site of the fire and explaining the events of that night, as he knows them.

“You need mental closure,” Andel said. “We do a crappy job of dealing with change as a society. We need to have this picnic to address the change they are going through.”

After a roughly hour-long information session, Andel showed the tenants to the ground floor of the apartment where the fire was started outside of Speir-Chrastina’s unit.

The apartment hallway’s white walls were darkened with soot as Andel led tenants down the apartment corridor. Once the group reached the fire’s source, Andel pointed out four small charred spots, roughly one foot in diameter, on the floor where the fire was ignited.

Andel then invited the residents into Chrastina-Speir’s former unit. Fire investigators had already ripped up the unit’s carpeting, he said, but the smell of gasoline still remained. Before the carpets were removed, Andel said he was told by fire investigators that gas stains covered the carpet and bedding in the unit.

“The intent was to catch this on fire,” he said as he pointed into the apartment. Andel then turned his attention to the charred entrance door of Speir-Chrastina’s unit, which he said was shut when the fire started. “This door could have saved everyone’s lives.”

Jim Costello, 67, been living at Trail Blazer Apartments since 2001, but his association with the building goes back much further than that. His current unit was also his homeroom when he was a student at the Sharpsville school in the 1960s. 

Costello chose not to “face the dragon” Friday.

“I just have no desire,” he said. “But I’ll be OK as long as I can come back to my home. I don’t want to live anywhere else.

Costello said he was awakened at roughly 2:30 a.m. Aug. 1 to the sound of a neighbor banging on his door.

“I opened the door and faced a wall of smoke,” Costello said. “I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face.”

For now, Costello is staying at the Quality Inn in Hermitage, but he has confidence Andel will get everyone back home as soon as possible.

“He’s doing everything he can to get us back in,” Costello said of his landlord. “He’s working his butt off.”

Andel said Servpro, the company in charge of the fire cleanup, is still evaluating damage inside the building. Until the assessment is completed, Andel said he did not have a timetable for when the still-displaced residents will be able to return home, if they choose to.

So far, he said, the damages are up to $86,000 and still climbing.

“It’s sad to know how much damage was done considering how small the area of the fire is,” Andel said.

Aside from structural damage, Andel said most of the tenants’ food and refrigerators would need to be discarded due to smoke damage. Upon hearing that news, Andel said Mercer County State Bank reached out to him and offered to start a food drive for affected residents.

“And they were actually the ones to reach out to me,” he said.

Last week’s fire hit especially close to home for Andel, who got emotional when talking about a fire in Meadville in 1984 that claimed the life of his aunt, along with seven children.

“I just didn’t think (fire) would strike again,” he said.  

State Rep. Mark Longietti, D-7, Hermitage, and Sharpsville City Manager Ken Robertson both attended Thursday’s picnic, and Andel said he was touched by the amount of community support for him and his residents, whom he refers to as his “extended family.”

“It’s tough,” he said. “Not only was I sucker punched, but my extended family was sucker punched.”