When Lightning Strikes
By LISA SANDHAUS, Staff Writer and Editorial Associate, Hempfield Suburban News – September/October 2012 Edition
“This is probably the last time I will ever see these walls painted.”
That is what I. Wayne Brubaker said about seven years ago when the interior of the Brubaker Inc. appliance store at 1284 Rohrerstown Road received a fresh coat of paint. He had no idea how true that statement would prove to be, and how that truth would come to pass. On June 9th, 2011, a lightning strike started a fire in the building and many wondered if that would be the end of the long time Hempfield business.
Wayne is the founder of Brubaker Inc. He was born in 1918 on the family farm at Colebrook Rd & Harrisburg Pike in what is now East Hempfield Township. At 16 he started working for Walter Ernst, a plumber in East Petersburg, learning the trade. With the advent of WWII, Brubaker went to work at the Navy ship yards in Philadelphia in 1940. He helped to build the USS New Jersey, and to convert luxury liners into war ships.
In 1942 Wayne’s father was disabled with lumbago, so he came home to help the family. Two years later his twin brother took over operating the farm. “So I started a plumbing business,” Wayne said. In early 1945 he began working with E. H. Gochnauer Plumbing in Rohrerstown, as well as other local plumbers, doing spouting and roof work. “Most plumbers didn’t like doing that part,” he said.
When Wayne and his wife Evelyn were first married they lived in his grandfather’s house on the corner of Rohrerstown Road and Harrisburg Pike. For a time, he ran his business, I. W. Brubaker Plumbing, Heating, & Spouting, out of the basement of the barn on this property. In 1948-49 Wayne purchased property across the street and, with the help of his bother-in-law and local builder Richard Pickel, the original Brubaker’s shop was born. A few years later Wayne and Evelyn built their own home on the land adjacent to the store, and have lived there ever since.
The Brubakers were in their home last June, when a thunder storm came in from the southwest. It was about 5:30 on a Thursday evening. The store had closed at 5:00. Lightning often set off the burglar alarm in the building, and that night was no different, Wayne said. He walked the few steps from the house to the store to disarm the alarm. As he unlocked the door, a bolt of lightning struck the ground just 50 feet from where he stood.
Wayne entered the store and reset the alarm. As he stood near the front entrance, he heard another crack of thunder. It was loud, “like a shotgun going off next to my ear,” he said. But all seemed well. He locked the door and returned to his house. A short time later he and Evelyn noticed cars in the store’s parking lot. A man and a woman approached the house, saying the store was on fire. They had already called 911.
There are some 25 million cloud-to-ground lightning strikes in the U.S. each year and Pennsylvania leads the country in damage caused by lightning strikes. Lightning has been known to cause forest fires, crash airplanes, and damage electrical equipment. In this case, lightning struck the rooftop air conditioning unit, igniting a fire.
As Wayne came out of his house he saw the windows across the front of the store shatter and black smoke came billowing out. Thinking fast, he dashed around the building to remove three cars which were housed in the far back corner. He ran through the heavy smoke, “It was blacker than coal,” he said, and brought two cars from the garage. Evelyn tried to save the third car, but the garage door was stuck just a couple of feet off the ground. Wayne crawled under the door and found the manual release, got the door up and the car out.
Firefighters arrived quickly and had the fire out in about 30 minutes, Wayne said. But they stayed on site for several hours, making sure no hot spots remained to flare up again. Wayne watched from his patio, as paramedics and family members tried to convince him to go to the hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation. He insisted he was fine, but the family eventually won, and he spent a couple of days recovering from his ordeal.
Although the fire was put out quickly, the smoke and heat it created caused immense damage. “We were surprised how black everything was,” said Doug Brubaker, Wayne’s grandson who oversees safety and communications for the business. The metal roof helped to intensify the heat inside the building, melting the plastic off of appliances. In the back store room, replacement parts stored in plastic bags looked shrink wrapped, and the wheels on a Winross Truck display on the back wall were all melted, he said.
Friday, the day after the fire, as family members surveyed the damage, there was a decision to make. “I went to the three boys and asked them, ‘do you want to stay in the appliance business?” Wayne said.
In its earliest days, Brubaker Inc. was Wayne. His brother-in-law Aaron Pickel was his first employee, working part time. By 1949 Wayne had a handful of employees, and in 1950 he brought his younger brother Albert on to manage the business. Wayne preferred to be out on the job. The building on Rohrerstown Road is generally thought of as an appliance store. In fact, appliance sales were not part of the picture until about 1952.
The original shop was a 50’ x 70’ structure, but several additions were added over the years. The business also expanded over the years to include heating and air conditioning, mechanical and electrical contracting, water conditioning, excavating, automotive service, and kitchen and bath remodeling. Today Brubaker Inc. boasts around 85 employees in all divisions of the business. There are four buildings on 14 acres of land, and another building nearby.
Wayne is no longer involved in the business at Brubaker Inc. The “three boys” he referred to are his sons, Donald, Gerald, and David. Wayne still owns the land, but in 1980 he stepped down, passing the business on to the boys.
After the fire, they immediately began planning a course of action. Staff in other departments were shifted around and by Monday the store was relocated to another building on the property and open for business. Discussions began as to what the new showroom would be.
The plan for the new showroom came from a specific outline for a new business strategy, said Bob Hadfield, a strategic consultant for the company. From the devastation of the fire, the Brubakers saw an opportunity to not only update their showroom, but to remarket themselves. The business has experienced a bit of an identity crisis over the years. Some people see them solely as a plumbing company, or an HVAC service provider. Others don’t realize they provide either of these services. Many people see the appliance store as just that – a place to purchase appliances – and don’t realize Brubaker Inc. has a kitchen and bath remodeling service as well.
The new showroom at Brubaker Inc. is modern, up to date, and ADA approved. It has a spacious, open feel with multiple kitchen and bath displays and a new design center. The idea was to show a range of the quality of products available, from good, to better, to best, Hadfield said. The showroom also serves as an example of the various services Brubaker Inc. provides. The general contractor involved in the remodel gutted the interior, providing a new shell and a finished floor, and painted the interior; but it was the staff from Brubaker Inc. that did the rest: all interior finishes including tile and vinyl flooring, lighting and other electric work, heat, air, plumbing, and cabinetry installation.
The star of the new showroom is a top of the line functional kitchen. The vision is to use this space in ways to involve the community and appeal to a wider clientele. Brubaker Inc. is working on plans to bring outside sources in for events such as demos and classes that would be open to the public.
It was 405 days from the day of the fire until the reopening of the appliance store. “It was a long hard year,” Evelyn said. The Brubakers’ home sustained smoke damage and lost power during the fire. A temporary electric pole was erected to provide service for them until just a few weeks ago.
Since his retirement Wayne spent many years with the Mennonite Disaster Service, helping to rebuild homes damaged by disasters. Evelyn volunteers at Lancaster General Hospital. They spend their summers in Lancaster, but winter in Sarasota, FL.
Of his ordeal on June 9, 2011, 93 year old Wayne said, “I’m too old for this kind of thing.” He loves the new showroom, but as far as the future of the business is concerned, “That’s up to the boys,” he said. “I did the first phase, it’s up to them to do the second phase.”