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Cause of massive Bethlehem Steel site fire is 'undetermined,' investigators say

After spending 10 months investigating the massive fire at the former Bethlehem Steel site, the Buffalo Fire Department declared the cause "undetermined" on Thursday.

James Otwell, chief of Buffalo Fire Investigation Unit, said investigators were not able to pinpoint what started the fire Nov. 7 that burned for four days in Lackawanna, forcing residents of about 300 homes to evacuate overnight, causing schools to close, disrupting traffic and spewing soot over Southtowns neighborhoods.

[Gallery: Massive fire at former Bethlehem Steel site]

The businesses most heavily damaged included Industrial Material Recycling and Dr. Bob's Storage that contained hundreds of boats, recreational vehicles, antique cars and motorcycles. The two were among about 15 to 20 companies that leased space from Great Lakes Industrial Development, owners of the warehouse located on former steel plant property at 3175 Lake Shore Road.

Evidence indicated that shards from a broken industrial light bulb may have played a role in started the fire, but the evidence was not conclusive, Otwell said at a briefing with Lackawanna Fire Chief Ralph Galanti and Buffalo Fire Marshalls Sean McKinnie and Kevin Hairston.

"There is a possibility that a light bulb broke and a piece of it fell on cardboard and plastic. These are old-school light industrial bulbs, mounted 50 feet up and capable of reaching temperatures of 1,000 degrees, said Otwell.

"Because no one actually witnessed the light bulb breaking and falling, we cannot rule that as the cause," Otwell explained.

A piece of a glass bulb may have fallen into the center of a group of large cardboard boxes stacked three boxes high and filled with plastic caps, said Otwell.

The 200 stationary light fixtures that were installed throughout the warehouse were originally intended to illuminate steel-making operations, said Galanti.

The fire was discovered by recycling workers attending a daily morning safety meeting. Otwell said. One of the workers reported hearing the "popping" sounds, Otwell said. Otwell said that a factor contributing to the rapid spread of the blaze was a 15-minute gap between the time workers discovered the fire and the time it was reported to 911.

"They were using extinguishers to try and put the fire out," Otwell said. At one point the workers believed the fire was "90 percent extinguished," Otwell said. "But they did not immediately call 911 and that impacted firefighters' ability to control and contain the fire."

The fire destroyed three buildings and was threatening a fourth structure when firefighters stopped its advance, Otwell said. If the fire's progression was not stopped, Otwell said a towering wall of stacked wooden pallets may have been ignited and the fire may have engulfed another structure.

Some 300 homes in Bethlehem Park were evacuated overnight Nov. 10-11 after state and federal authorities found "very unhealthy" to "hazardous" air quality.

Lackawanna incurred $655,208 in expenses due to the fire, Mayor Geoffrey M. Szymanski said in March. Most of the expenses – $522,373 – were attributed to emergency demolition fees paid to Apollo Dismantling Services of Niagara Falls and Empire Dismantling Corp. of Grand Island.

 

 

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