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Debris still smolders at fiber plant

Fire debris still smoldered Tuesday as investigators tore away big chunks of a building to find the cause of Sunday's blaze that ravaged a historic factory on Tonawanda Island.

The fire has shut down International Fiber Corp., a sprawling manufacturing complex at Bridge and Detroit streets that has been a landmark factory on the island since 1917.

Normally a 24-7 operation, the company has put 40 of its 65 hourly employees on standby, said Kirsten Lenartowich, vice president of human resources.
The workers are being paid, but are not allowed back into the plant until fire and insurance investigators complete their probe.

The North Tonawanda Fire Department has its own internal investigation unit. Assistant Chief Larry Hromowyk is heading the investigation. The probe could take up to two weeks, officials said. About a dozen maintenance employees were still working in one of the company's buildings on the opposite side of Detroit Street.

In addition to the hourly workers, the company employs 30 corporate personnel and five supervisors and plant managers.

About 60,000 square feet of building space in the complex was destroyed by fire, City Fire Chief Joseph Krantz estimated. He also estimated the fire caused about $2.5 million in damage.

The company makes products to serve many food, pharmaceutical, automobile and industrial applications.

The dismantling of the remains of the building where the fire is believed to have started is a "cleanup and recovery" operation, not a demolition project, Lenartowich emphasized.

"We are recovering big pieces of the building and equipment, so it is not a total loss," she told The Buffalo News. "That's really good news. We are becoming more and more optimistic as we proceed."

The word arson has not come up in the investigation but is not being ruled out, Assistant City Fire Chief Christopher Fritz said Tuesday.

"You have to go in with an open mind," Fritz said. "First you eliminate all accidental causes and then you look at the human element."

Firefighters said it was one of the toughest fires they've ever fought, and the worst in decades in industrial-heavy North Tonawanda.

Fritz was one of about 200 firefighters from several Niagara and Erie county fire departments who battled the blaze. The fire erupted about 6:30 a.m. Sunday and raged for at least six hours. Firefighters were on the scene well into Sunday night.

"The fire, instead of getting smaller, just kept getting bigger and bigger," Krantz said.

"We really had to work that fire," added Fritz.

Mayor Lawrence V. Soos said he would ask the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency to financially support any rebuilding costs in the form of tax breaks and other concessions.

"The company has been a great corporate citizen and employer for many years, and we want to keep them here," said Jeffrey Mis, the mayor's administrative assistant.
During a Common Council meeting Tuesday night, Soos and Council members commended firefighters for their efforts.

Lenartowich reassured the city the company isn't planning to rebuild elsewhere.

"Our roots are here," she told The News, "and we are committed to this area."

e-mail: bmichelmore@buffnews.com

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