Travelers driving north along South Main Street in the heart of downtown Greensburg can get a glimpse of the city’s past.
But they have to look up to the left, and be quick.
A neon sign that once told the world what the building at 124 S. Main held is visible only briefly. Although it is clearly visible during the day, it no longer burns at night. And a glance of the sign peaking from the third floor of the building next to the St. Vincent DePaul Store may leave motorists wondering, “What’s that?”
For older Greensburg residents, it’s a reminder of the deadliest fire in Greensburg’s modern history. The evening of Oct. 19, 1961, heavy smoke from an electrical fire that began in the basement of the LaRose Shop, a popular women’s dress shop, left five people dead.
At the time, Greensburg boasted a vibrant downtown shopping district. The narrow, three-story building at 124 S. Main, that had originally been built in 1913 as a theater, had been renovated as a retail shop in 1956.
Published accounts of the fire noted that the dress shop was full of patrons taking advantage of late hours — downtown stores stayed open until 9 p.m. Thursdays back then.
News accounts recorded how shortly after 8 p.m. customers reported smelling smoke coming from the basement of the building. When employees tried to call for help, they found the phone lines were dead.
At 8:18, alarms from a call box on the street alerted firefighters to the unfolding drama.
Fire crews were on the scene in minutes. They performed a series of heroic rescues, pulling to safety shoppers trapped on the second floor as thick smoke spewed from the building.
By the time it was over, 19 people on the street-level first floor had fled to safety; five people on the second floor had escaped through a window and down fire ladders; firefighters had ferried another another 11 people to safety down a 24-foot extension ladder.
The shop owner, Alexander Cohen, and four employees stayed back on the second floor while others were rescued. They later were found dead of smoke inhalation. Unable to navigate an escape route through the heavy, dark smoke that filled the building, they died in a backroom.
Those who participated in the dramatic rescue are long gone.
Fire Chief Tom Bell said several generations of new volunteer firefighters have been schooled in the story of the city’s deadliest fire.
“It was a big, smokey fire. We tell them that was back at about the time code enforcement was coming on. With the building codes we have today and code enforcement, things would have been different. That could have helped prevent this,” Bell said.
Bell heard the story firsthand from Ed Hutchinson, Greensburg’s long-serving fire chief who died in 2018. “Hutch” had manned the ladder that day, carrying shoppers to safety.
After the fire, the building was repaired. The dress shop reopened. It remained in business until 1977.
Several other businesses, including a nonprofit and a deli, later occupied the building.
In 2015, a new owner removed the blue glass tiles that were added to the facade after the fire. A major renovation created two loft apartments on the second and third floors as well as a space for retail or office space on the street level.
Today, the apartments are known as the LaRose Lofts.
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