by Ryan Shaffer
On Saturday, Dec. 6, at 11 a.m., the Ellwood City Volunteer Fire Department will hold a memorial service to pay tribute to two firefighters who lost their lives fighting a structure fire on Lawrence Avenue. Nearly 25 years ago, on Dec. 4, 1989, David “Ernie” Martino and Paul Frederick entered the Elton Hotel, formerly located in the vacant lot between PNC Bank and Nido’s Beauty Salon, and never came back out. Fire chief Rick Myers explained the significance of their actions on that cold winter morning.
“They paid the ultimate sacrifice for this community,” Myers said. “Every year on [that date] we hold some type of memorial service, either in the community or in-house. Seven guys are still here that were there that day. They were good guys.”
Myers, who married Frederick’s daughter Shannon, never met his father-in-law or Martino personally, but he works among several firefighters that knew and worked alongside the men.
On that unfortunate morning in 1989, firefighter Jeff Magnifico received the same notification from the fire department just after 4 a.m. as Frederick and Martino. His memory of the events that occurred during the fire remains vivid to this day.
“When I got there, there was fire coming out of the back door and the rear parts of the building,” Magnifico recalled. “I was with another firefighter, Greg Young, and the captain told Greg that [chief] Jack Brest wanted us to go to the second floor to try and rescue the residents that were trapped. When we went upstairs, the heat was so intense that it burned through our masks. Greg started yelling that he was burning up, and it soaked through his nose. We had to leave…it was hottest place I’ve ever been in.”
When the men exited the building, Dave Tritt, the engine driver and firefighter on duty that night, told Magnifico and Frederick to go into the hotel kitchen and shut off the gas.
“When Paul and I started to go in, Ernie stopped me and said ‘take a break’ and mentioned something about [me] having kids at home,” Magnifico said. “I was burnt pretty badly, too, so he went in. I stood outside and fed the hose in to them, and all of the sudden the building collapsed. Even after 25 years, I can remember it like it was yesterday…even an hour ago.”
Frederick’s daughters, Shannon and Ivy, recall receiving the news about their father that day.
“I went to school that day, and I remember the guidance counselor came and got me from class,” Ivy, who was only 16 at the time, explained. “I didn’t want to believe it. I knew it was real when I got home and saw [mom] crying. She never cried.”
Shannon, who was 12 and home from school that day, found out when the guidance counselors brought Ivy home.
“They brought Ivy to the house,” Shannon added. “I was told something happened to him, then I saw mom crying. I knew it was really bad.”
Magnifico was treated for the facial burns he incurred, and spent the next six months on leave. The devastating incident led him to question whether or not he should continue fighting fires, as well as serving the community as a paramedic and EMT.
“I didn’t answer any calls after that…I was ready to quit,” Magnifico said. “A lot of guys left. Our entire paid department was gone within two years. Guys used to hang around [the department] all of the time…they hardly came around after that. I was going to quit being a paramedic, which Ernie actually pushed me to become even though he wasn’t really a ‘blood and guts’ guy.”
Magnifico recalled his days spent with Frederick and Martino, who became his adopted brothers. Frederick taught sixth grade for two decades in the Ellwood City Area School District, which is how the two first met.
“I met Paul when I graduated high school in 1977,” Magnifico explained. “He got a job at the school, and I started working there. I worked with him for two summers. We actually repainted and replaced the bleachers at the football stadium together. He always told me, ‘when you turn 21, you need to join the fire department.’ We became good friends.”
In 1979, Magnifico joined the Ellwood City Volunteer Fire Department, where he met Martino, a “good guy” Calgon employee. He remembered sharing some good laughs with fellow fire fighters sparked by ‘Ernie’ and his humorous antics.
“I met Ernie when I joined and we became good friends,” Magnifico said. “One time, we went to a house fire on Bridge Street off of Line Avenue, and he was driving. He pulled up near the sidewalk and forgot to put the brake on, and whose car do you think the truck hit? Paul’s.”
According to Shannon, that incident was likely very serious through the perspective of their father, which added to the hilarity of the situation.
“He actually waxed the seats in that car,” Shannon said. “We used to slide around on the backseat when he was driving. He absolutely loved that car. I never really saw dad get mad…never saw that side of him, but I bet he was mad that day.”
Certainly, both men will be remembered as great community members, and heroic firehouse brothers.
“Everyone loved my dad…he was everyone’s favorite teacher in school and he did so much for the community,” Ivy discussed. “People still come up to me this day and ask if I am Paul’s daughter…so many years later. It’s truly amazing that people still remember him to this day.”
“It’s important for people to know just how great these guys were,” Magnifico added. “It’s been 25 years, and a lot people just don’t know about it. It’s great that we honor them every year. They were heroes…and good friends.”
During the entire month of December, Ellwood City firefighters will wear patches displaying the names of Paul Frederick and David “Ernie” Martino. Half will wear Martino, and the other half Frederick. A procession will begin at the fire station, and proceed to the site of the Elton Hotel on the 400 block of Lawrence Avenue. A short wreath-laying ceremony will take place, then, the group will continue on to Christ Presbyterian Church at the corner of Fourth Street and Spring Avenue for a memorial service on Saturday, Dec. 6 at 11 a.m. The community is asked to line Lawrence Avenue, and Fourth Street to Spring Avenue, to pay tribute along with the firefighters.