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Officials seek cause of fire in plant International Fiber closed indefinitely

The cause of Sunday's inferno at International Fiber Corp. on Tonawanda Island that shut down the plant was still being investigated, fire officials said Monday night.

Investigators were dismantling parts of the building at Detroit and Bridge streets in an attempt to pinpoint where the blaze started, Assistant Fire Chief Richard Kocak told The Buffalo News.

"There's absolutely nothing running in that whole plant," said Kirsten M. Lenartowich, the company's vice president of human resources.

The company normally runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and has 65 hourly employees. The only plant employees still on the job Monday were 12 maintenance people who were working in one of the company's buildings on the opposite side of Detroit street, Lenartowich said.

"The [other] employees are on standby and are being paid," she said. "As soon as we can have them come in to work, they will."

The plant could be closed for two or three weeks, she said.

The 6:30 a.m. fire was believed to have started in a rear building on the west side of the island, where the plant has been a landmark since 1917. Several connected buildings in the sprawling manufacturing complex were destroyed, causing losses in the millions of dollars, company officers said.

Firefighters who battled the blaze all day and into Sunday evening said it was one of the worst fires in North Tonawanda in recent memory.

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

"I watched the firefighters trying desperately to put out the blaze," Lenartowich said.

No one was in the building when the fire broke out, she added.

The company manufactures products to serve many food, pharmaceutical, automobile and industrial applications. No hazardous materials were believed to be housed there.

Plant manager Jerry Bianchi said Sunday that some of the plant is salvageable.

When the fire broke out, flames and smoke could be seen billowing from several buildings, including several areas used to store raw materials and finished products.

Firefighters from the cities of North Tonawanda and Tonawanda and the Town of Wheatfield battled the blaze.

Two ladder trucks shot water down onto the buildings during the morning hours Sunday, 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 partly collapsed roofs and walls.

e-mail: bmichelmore@buffnews.com

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