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Headlong crash by car leaves firehouse reeling; Apparent suicide try in Amherst wreaks havoc that could require months to repair

Snow may be falling before the Main-Transit fire station in Amherst will be fully repaired after a Buffalo driver slammed into it early Monday, taking out a major support column and damaging a fire engine and two rescue trucks.

After a daring rescue effort and a long Monday spent with volunteer firefighters cleaning up shattered glass, bricks and concrete, Fire Chief Jon R. Kemp was looking a little worn down Tuesday.

"We went from six truck bays to two," he said as contractors continued to work outside to assess the damage. "It took about 18 hours to get the last of the trucks out."

If damage to the fire station exceeds $1 million, Kemp said, he won't be surprised.

North Buffalo resident Mark W. Detlef, 50, was driving east on Main Street shortly after 12:30 a.m. Monday when he slammed his 1999 Buick LeSabre into the firehouse in an apparent suicide attempt.

"He intentionally drove into the building," Kemp said.

Amherst Building Commissioner Thomas C. Ketchum, who was awakened at 1:30 a.m. and called to the scene, said Detlef had to have been driving at highway speed or greater to sheer the column off its footing and strip the metal support beam of its concrete and brick casing.

Detlef, who apparently has no ties to the fire station, drove into it at an angle, with his vehicle becoming wedged between a fire engine and the front bay wall.

Rescuing the injured driver proved to be dangerous. The equipment needed to extricate Detlef from the car was located in one of the damaged, debris-covered rescue trucks that could not be moved from its position, Kemp said.

In addition, the firehouse roof was sagging over the spot where the car was pinned, leaving Kemp to wonder whether the building might come crashing down on firefighters attempting a rescue.

"We had 40 of our people here," Kemp said.

Volunteer firefighters and rescue crews ended up spending more than 40 minutes extricating the driver. They cleared debris from one rescue truck and ran hydraulic lines outside the building so that equipment similar to the Jaws of Life could be used to cut away the driver's side door and half the roof, while limiting human exposure within the damaged building.

Detlef initially faded in and out of consciousness but was soon able to respond to questions and commands from rescue crews. After Detlef was pulled out, he was apologetic, according to the fire chief.

"He said, 'I'm sorry about the damage to your building,' " Kemp said. "And he wanted his shoes."

Police said Kemp suffered leg and ankle fractures. He was listed in stable condition Tuesday in Erie County Medical Center.

Amherst police Capt. Patrick M. McKenna said Detlef is being charged with felony criminal mischief for damage to property, as well as an assortment of traffic violations. Police have pulled a module from the Buick that should tell them how fast Detlef was driving, McKenna said.

Detlef apparently was not under the influence of any alcohol or drugs, according to McKenna, who said that the speed of the car exceeded 50 mph and that there was no attempt at braking.

Brian M. Rusin, the Main-Transit captain of Emergency Medical Services, escorted Detlef to the hospital.

According to Rusin, Detlef had a series of 2-inch cuts along an arm, stretching from elbow to wrist, that apparently were self-inflicted and about 10 days old.

Once the driver was taken to the hospital, Kemp said, everyone had to refocus their attention on keeping the station standing.

After the building commissioner was called to the scene, Amherst Highway Superintendent Robert N. Anderson also was awakened in the middle of the night to see if his department had any equipment that could shore up the building before emergency contractors were called in the morning.

After discussing a number of options, Anderson had a front-end loader brought in from the town's highway garage to support the roof overnight.

By Tuesday, five steel support beams were holding up roof structures that the original beam supported; two 14-foot glass bay doors that were smashed in the crash were removed; the open bay entrances were boarded up; and all the debris was swept away.

Contractors were removing parts of the facade to better assess the damage, which extends from the middle of the building, where the crash occurred, to the east wall, where the brick was cracked.

The rescue truck that sustained the least damage was relocated to the fire company's substation on Sheridan Drive.

The other two damaged vehicles were relocated to rear garages on the property. Those trucks will need windshield replacements, chrome and paint repair. One of the rescue vehicles will also require more extensive bodywork because of frame damage.

The firehouse itself will require hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs, Kemp said.

Main-Transit Station 1 at 6777 Main St. was built as a two-bay firehouse in 1953, he said. Two more bays were added in the 1970s, and another two were added in mid-'80s, he said.

There are more than 100 volunteer firefighters in the company, which covers a large section of East Amherst.

Getting the station fully functional again will be a long and expensive process, said town and fire officials.

"It's a mess," Ketchum said. "We do get cars hitting buildings every year. This one is a little worse than most."

e-mail: stan@buffnews.com

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