The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

October 30, 2013

Officer sees rescue as part of his job

Justin Dennis

JOHNSTOWN — Leaping into danger, specifically a working house fire, is something best left to the professionals – those with ventilation masks and fire-retardant suits.

Sgt. Jeffrey Berkebile, with Upper Yoder Township police, didn’t have any of that when he kicked in the back door of a Swank Street home early Monday to rescue resident Joe Varmecky from a second-floor blaze.

“It’s part of the job,” Berkebile said humbly. “I knew I had time to go in and take a quick look.”

Berkebile works the “fairly quiet” 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift at the station along Elim Street – a nighttime sentinel who was the closest responder to the Varmecky home when the call came in from the Upper Yoder Township Volunteer Fire Department.

He said the Varmecky home is just a few hundred yards behind the station. When he exited the station to the parking lot, he said he could see an orange glow through the line of half-naked trees.

When he arrived on scene, he said the second floor of the home was “blown out the window.” Fire officials later determined that a faulty wood-burner was to blame and the flames spread up a flue to the upper level.

Neighbors said Varmecky, who has lived alone in the Swank Street home for years, is hearing-impaired and doesn’t speak. Berkebile said although the first floor was thick with smoke and it was difficult to see, he was able to hear Varmecky.

“He sort of grunts – that’s how I heard him in the living room,” he said. “I just grabbed him by the shirt. I saw a coat on the kitchen table. I grabbed that and pulled him outside.”

Berkebile said Varmecky didn’t leave the home on his own, even though the danger was apparent.

“Joey’s stubborn. I don’t know how long he was in there, how long he knew the place was on fire,” Berkebile said. “As soon as I got him outside, he wanted to go back in. I wrote him a note saying, ‘cannot go back in.’

“I took him around the side to where the flames were coming out the upstairs window. He realized he wasn’t going back in.”

The 59-year-old Berkebile said he’s pulled people out of burning homes before.

He’s been the volunteer fire department’s vice president for more than 20 years and did a stint as assistant fire chief.

After 43 years fighting fires and more than 20 years on the force full-time, he said one gets a good sense of one's limitations when it comes to fire response.

“You know what you can do and what you can’t do with or without gear,” he said.

The roof of the home collapsed after a containment that took nearly two hours.

Neighbors told The Tribune-Democrat that the safe-and-sound Varmecky is staying with friends.

The house is a total loss, according to Dan Conway, assistant fire chief, and although Varmecky had insurance, there was much more the man lost in the blaze.

“He not only lost his home, he lost his business, his livelihood,” said neighbor Janice Meagher of Harshberger Street. “It’s a pretty sad situation.”

Varmecky did woodworking out of his home, and his tools were in the basement when fire consumed the home, Meagher said.

She said insurance workers were boarding up the windows on Tuesday. She said seeing that upset her, and she wishes a fundraiser could be organized in Varmecky’s name.

“My husband is not one to marvel at anything – he said his (wood)work is absolutely beautiful.”

Justin Dennis is a multimedia reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at