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FIRE SITE IS COMBED FOR CLUES

Fire officials today sought to determine what triggered a fire and explosions that destroyed a Lockport plant, sending toxic gases into the sky early Tuesday.

Assistant Fire Chief Bruce Scheffler said that he and two other investigators were probing the fire, which destroyed the manufacturing section of Micro Pulverizing Inc., 45 Frost St.

The plant produces high-pressure plastics, including car parts such as plastic rotors and distributor caps. The future of the manufacturing operation is uncertain. Richard Niel, the owner and president of Micro Pulverizing, could not be reached to comment Tuesday.

The fire started about 1:30 a.m. and forced the evacuation of 100 homes within a half-mile radius of the factory. Residents went to Lockport Memorial Hospital and City Hall. All returned to their homes by later Tuesday morning .

"Fortunately," gases went high into the atmosphere, diluting their potentially toxic effect, Assistant Fire Chief Michael Seeloff said.

Scheffler also said there was no wind at the time, which helped keep the gases from spreading too far from the area.

In the meantime, Niagara County Health Department officials urged Lockport-area residents to take precautions "to minimize any exposure to potentially harmful byproducts (from) soot fallout."

Health Department officials advised residents to use rubber gloves to remove large pieces of ash and fire-related materials that might have landed near their homes and place them in a sealed plastic garbage bag for city disposal. They also urged residents to wash and launder clothing if in contact with fire soot or debris.

Officials also urged residents to wash lawn furniture, filter swimming pool water for at least six hours, and thoroughly wash fruits and vegetables harvested from home gardens. Homes should be ventilated thoroughly if unusual odors are detected, the officials added.

The battle to contain the fire was difficult.

Four firefighters attacking the blaze from inside the plant left the building when dust ignited. About five minutes later, three explosions rocked the building, collapsing a section of roof.

The manufacturing operation, which employs six people, takes up at least a third of the building, Scheffler said.

The biggest explosion blew out the plant's west wall, throwing pieces of it as far as 50 feet and knocking down a utility pole and primary electric lines, Seeloff said.

This required New York State Electric & Gas crews to cut power to 170 homes and businesses at 2:07 a.m. Power was fully restored by 12:58 p.m., a utility official said.

The evacuation was triggered by the fear that the fire could spread to 22 pallets of the chemical hexamethylenetetramine, converting it to a deadly gas posing a threat to the lives of firefighters and residents, fire officials said.

State Department of Environmental Conservation officials and the Niagara County Hazardous Materials Team were summoned to the scene, along with more than 60 firefighters from Lockport and Wright Corners departments, Seeloff said.

The explosions sent a plume of smoke high into the sky, tossing bits of the plant all over the city, fire officials said.

Seeloff said firefighters had problems getting enough pressure to pour water on the extraordinarily hot fire.

Damage was estimated at $55,000 to the building. There was no estimate of damage to machinery or other building contents, Seeloff said. "We'll have some heavy equipment there in the morning to move materials around (and eliminate hot spots) so we can begin the investigation," said Scheffler, noting that the factory site was much too hot late Tuesday to begin a through investigation. Firefighters remained at the scene into the evening to ensure there were no flare-ups.

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