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Fiber plant fire being probed Cost of blaze guessed to be in the millions

Fire investigators are still searching for the cause of a multiple-alarm industrial blaze Sunday where losses could likely add up into the millions.

The fire at International Fiber Corp. -- established in 1917 and a fixture on Tonawanda Island -- ravaged a handful of smaller, interconnected buildings that comprise a sprawling manufacturing and storage warehouse.

Firefighters, working well into Sunday evening, termed it one of the worst fires in North Tonawanda in recent memory.

Investigators expected to work into this morning to find what sparked the blaze. It was believed to have started at about 6:30 a.m. Sunday in a rear building on the west side of the island.

North Tonawanda Assistant Fire Chief Christopher Fritz called it "a catastrophic loss."

"We probably haven't had a big fire in the city in 10 years. With the damage, they've probably lost a lot of machinery," he said.

No one was in the building when the fire broke out, said Kirsten M. Lenartowich, the company's vice president of human resources, who stood outside the facility as firefighters worked to douse the flames Sunday morning.

The company, which has 65 hourly employees, is typically a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week operation, though it slows down on weekends.

Company officials said it's undetermined what the impact will be on the North Tonawanda operation, one of its six manufacturing sites. Plant manager Jerry Bianchi said the facility's operations will be curtailed. The company manufactures and supplies a wide range of cellulose and textile fibers.

"Some of the plant is salvageable, but we're still evaluating," said Bianchi, who was in Albany when he was contacted early Sunday about the fire and rushed back. "There's obviously some areas of the plant that are seriously incapacitated. We're still assessing damage."

Two North Tonawanda Water Treatment facility workers on Tonawanda Island reported seeing smoke coming from a storage area and called for help, Lenartowich said.

Flames and smoke could be seen coming from several buildings, including several areas used to store raw materials and finished products. Fire officials described some areas as destroyed, while others
were heavily damaged.

Firefighters from the cities of North Tonawanda and Tonawanda and the Town of Wheatfield, responded to the fire -- which was a challenge to battle.

"We had a hard time actually locating the fire. Apparently, it was above the guys and was venting out part of the rear building," Fritz said.

Two ladder trucks shot water down onto the buildings during the morning hours, while other equipment pumped water from the Niagara River. As evening approached, firefighters kept shooting high arcs of water at smoldering piles of material in the buildings, some with partially collapsed roofs and walls.

International Fiber, at the corner of Bridge and Detroit streets, manufactures products to serve many food, pharmaceutical, auto and industrial applications. No hazardous materials were believed to be housed there.

e-mail: abesecker@buffnews.com

e-mail: krobinson@buffnews.com

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