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Worst feared after a charred body is found in debris of Lockport fire

UPDATE: The Lockport fire is finally extinguished.

LOCKPORT – Remains of a body – badly charred – found in the smoldering wreckage of a landmark Lockport fire may be those of a 14-year-old boy who, according to sources, left a final desperate plea for help in a phone message to a friend.

"I can’t get out," the boy said, as he gasped for air, according to two law enforcement sources.

About 48 hours after the fire began, the discovery of the burned body in the ruins of the Lockport tire recycling business made a somber coda to the grueling scene of destroyed property and firefighter exhaustion.

Confirmation of the identity of the body is not expected until Monday, according to Niagara County Coroner Kenneth Lederhouse, who told The News on Saturday that he will obtain dental records to aid the identification process.

[RELATED: Hope for 14-year-old Lockport boy flickers as coroner works to identify body]

Lockport police reported the finding late Friday.

Two law enforcement sources said Friday that a boy left a desperate plea for help in a phone message to a friend as a fire consumed a Lockport tire recycling building where he’s believed to have died.

Lockport police are also investigating whether the call – and phone message – was made by Joe Phillips, the 14-year-old Lockport boy who has not been seen since just before the massive fire was discovered at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at HTI Recycling, according to the sources.

[RELATED: Family fears 14-year-old is victim of Lockport fire]

Although Lockport police have not made any official comment, four sources said authorities believe Phillips and his friend set the fire.

“The boy who provided the voicemail to his phone from Joe said Joe ran back into the building to try and put out the fire, and couldn’t get back out,” a source said.

Police speculated that when Phillips re-entered the building through a pathway the boys had previously used to access the structure, he became disoriented and could not find his way back out because of heavy black smoke, a source familiar with the investigation said.

Firefighters were unable to search the site for Phillips on Friday because the fire is still burning.

“This is not a homicide investigation. We are trying to recover a body,” a law enforcement source said.

joe phillips

A source familiar with the investigation said it is highly unlikely Joe Phillips escaped the fire, but added, “For the sake of his family, I hope that is true.”

Phillips, who was entering his freshman year at Lockport High, is still missing, his stepfather said Friday morning at his house on Oliver Street in Lockport. He said police have not told him anything about the search for Phillips.

Alyssa Phillips, Joe’s 17-year-old sister, also said Friday that the family has not received any official word from the Lockport police about whether Joe is dead.

“We just thought it was a possibility,” she said.

On Facebook, Alyssa Phillips has expressed hope that her brother is still alive, stating that he may have escaped and run away because he is scared he will get in trouble.

“Until I see his dead body, I will keep believing he’s alive,” Alyssa Phillips wrote.

Late Thursday night, she posted, “I just wanna thank all of the firefighters and everyone who is helping with the fire and looking for my little brother.”

The source familiar with the investigation said it is highly unlikely Phillips escaped, but added, “For the sake of his family, I hope that is true.”

[PHOTO GALLERY: Lockport tire recycling factory catches fire]

Alyssa Phillips said Friday that her younger brother is “a good kid,” but added, “Every once in a while he would do something stupid.”

Alyssa Phillips said that Joe enjoyed playing video games.

“He played Pokémon Go like everyone else,” she said. “He liked to play with paintball guns.”

Phillips’ mother, Ann Phillips, and his father, Mark Phillips, declined to be interviewed Friday.

Asked on Thursday if it was possible his son might have started the fire, Mark Phillips told The News, “It’s possible, yeah. With his friends, you never know. Teenagers. But he’s never done anything like that before, to my knowledge.”

Derek Martin, the owner of HTI Recycling, has said his company had video evidence the fire was started by kids in an unused office building. He said that he hoped to rebuild the business, but said it could take six months. About 100 people work for HTI, Martin said.

[RELATED: Fire was intentionally set, owner of Lockport tire recycling firm says]

Mark Phillips’ neighbor, LaToya Lindsey, said her daughter was a good friend of Joe’s and rode with him on the school bus.

“She said he was a pretty good kid,” Lindsey said. “He was a pretty quiet kid.”

Lindsey said she wouldn’t have thought Phillips likely to get in serious trouble.

“I never heard of him getting in trouble ... I usually see him come home at a decent hour,” she said.

Lockport Police Detective Lt. Todd Chenez refused to comment Friday morning when asked about the investigation.

Fire Chief Patrick K. Brady said Friday that the fire may continue burning through Friday night.

“We’ll probably be here overnight,” he said.

[RELATED: Firefighters battled elements as well as flames in Lockport]

Lockport Mayor Anne E. McCaffrey said the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office told her 50 companies were involved in fighting the fire or were placed on standby duty Wednesday night and Thursday. However, only two crews were at the scene Friday morning.

Smoke rises over homes Thursday on High Street in Lockport. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Smoke rises over homes Thursday on High Street in Lockport. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

On Friday night, the mandatory evacuation order for residents of streets around the fire scene was lifted.

Brady said the exception is Stevens Street east of South New York Street, which will remain closed until firefighting is complete.
McCaffrey also announced that garbage in the area will be collected Monday.

McCaffrey said a contractor hired by the state Department of Environmental Conservation skimmed the Erie Canal between the fire scene and the Lockport locks Thursday night and early Friday, and removed “95 percent of the debris and oil residue” from the fire.

HTI Recycling’s Stevens Street side is about half a block from a bridge over the canal.

[RELATED: Lockport residents familiar with fires at tire recycling plant]

McCaffrey said the DEC told her that it will monitor the situation, but further pollution is not expected unless a heavy rain washes debris and oil out of a storm sewer that drains into the canal.

[RELATED: Tire fires pose hazards to air, land and water]

Meanwhile, the Niagara County Department of Mental Health announced that it has set up a counseling line for firefighters or residents who feel stressed because of the blaze and its aftermath. The number is 285-3515.

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com,  lmichel@buffnews.com

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