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Fire damages Orchard Park condos; Lightning suspected of touching off blaze

Gusty winds Wednesday capped off a wild night that brought thousands of lightning strikes in Western New York, one of them apparently starting a fire that left several families homeless in Orchard Park.

"We felt the house shake when the lightning struck," said Beckie Jaeger, who lived in one of the condominiums that caught fire at 90 Carriage Drive.

After the house shook at 1:11 a.m., she said, she went back to sleep. Then, at about 2 a.m., she woke up when an Orchard Park police officer started pounding on her door.

"You've got to get out. There's a fire on the roof," he yelled.

All of the occupants were safely evacuated before the roof on several of the units collapsed onto the second floor.

Fire investigators still were looking into the cause, although a lightning strike was reported in the first call that came in at 1:47 a.m.

A series of thunderstorms that blew through the area early Wednesday produced the extensive lightning, said Tom Niziol, meteorologist in charge of the Cheektowaga office of the National Weather Service.

"We had a tremendous amount of lightning for four to five hours from the storms as they moved across Western New York," he said.

The eight Western New York counties had 1,200 to 1,500 cloud-to-ground lightning strikes an hour during the storm, Niziol said.

"Although that's not unprecedented for this time of the year, it is certainly a little out of the ordinary," he added.

Winds of 35 mph, with gusts to 52 mph, moved through the area during the day Wednesday, causing minor power outages. At one point during the late afternoon, 1,200 National Grid customers were without power, many of them in the Byron-Bergen area of Genesee County, according to Stephen Brady, company spokesman.

The Orchard Park blaze affected five connecting units, causing an estimated $500,000 in structural damage, according to Dan Neaverth Jr., chief of the Orchard Park Fire District. One firefighter suffered a minor ankle injury.

The Red Cross provided emergency assistance to six people, a spokesman said.

"Somebody across the way saw flames and reported it," Jaeger said.

Each unit has two stories, plus a basement and attic. The building contains 10 units, separated at midpoint by a fire wall, the fire chief said.

Initially, fire and smoke were coming from the roof at one end of the building, Neaverth said.

"From that point on, it just became a race against time," he said.

Through roughly the first 2 1/2 hours, firefighting efforts were complicated by lightning, which meant nobody could go up in the bucket of an aerial truck, he said.

As portions of the massive roof started to collapse, all firefighters were pulled from the interior. Early in the effort, firefighters also encountered problems getting enough water to the building, the fire chief said.

"The fire wall in the attic area did pretty much its job," Neaverth said, but flames eventually started to break through.

A pet cat that lived in the unit where the fire originated was found later -- alive and well -- floating on debris in about 3 feet of water in the basement, Neaverth said.

Residents were able to retrieve some belongings from their homes. Jaeger, with the help of her daughter, son-in-law and friends, was able to bring out some family heirlooms and at least four plastic bins holding photographs and other items.

The bins, stored in the basement, overturned and the tops fell off as the water rose. Early Wednesday evening, Jaeger and her daughter were separating photos that had stuck together in the water and placing them on blankets to dry in a the garage of a neighbor.

"You just don't think something like this is going to happen. It rocks your whole world," said Jaeger, who has lived there 18 years. "It changes everything."

The bulk of the damage occurred in three of the units, with extensive damage to the roof and attic of one.

Volunteer firefighters from the Orchard Park Fire District's three companies were assisted by firefighters from seven additional companies from nearby suburbs. All told, Neaverth said, as many as 100 firefighters were on the scene, which was cleared at about 6 a.m.

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