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As blaze is probed in Snyder, a fatality occurs in Clarence amid motel blast, fire

As fire investigators and insurance adjusters combed through the charred remains of a Main Street storefront in Snyder on Thursday, firefighters less than eight miles down the road in Clarence battled intense flames in a motel that left one man dead.

Responding to numerous 911 calls from neighboring businesses and passers-by reporting an explosion and fire, Clarence volunteers rushed to the 5:24 p.m. alarm at the Rock Garden Motel at Main Street and Goodrich Road. A second alarm was then sounded.

"The fire was obvious upon arrival," Jeff Schlabach, second assistant chief with Clarence Fire, said, adding that flames were pouring from the front apartment in the six-unit building.

The fire was confined to about three units, but the entire building was heavily damaged.

The body of a man, whose name and age were not released late Thursday, was recovered in one of the apartments.

Hatte Meneau was one of the several to call 911 to report the fire.

Meneau, an employee at Arthur's Executive Cleaners just across Goodrich Road from the fire scene, said she remembered hearing "a boom" while in the backroom at work but initially "didn't make anything of it."

"Five minutes later, I came out to run the racking and saw the whole front [of the building] was totally on fire," Meneau said.

Flames towered above the one-story building.

At nearby Goodrich Coffee & Tea, "the whole shop smelled like smoke," said Abby Wittlinger, a clerk.

Wittlinger and fellow coffee clerk Jenna Lesinski said Wittlinger's sister came in to tell her there was a fire down the street. They said they hurried to the eastern window and saw the flames.

"It was like a big wave of flames coming out," Wittlinger said. "I don't think I've ever seen anything like that that close."

Five other occupants of the motel escaped unharmed. One of the six flats, which include several "very small" rooms, was vacant.

At least three people, believed to be motel occupants, were wrapped in blankets and standing on the other side of Goodrich. None wanted to discuss the ordeal.

In all, there are 17 units at the complex. Schlabach said the five displaced residents were being assisted late Thursday by the American Red Cross. Exact damage estimates were still being tabulated late Thursday, and a cause had yet to be determined.

Volunteers from the Clarence Center, Harris Hill, Newstead and Main-Transit fire companies assisted at the scene, with two others stationed on standby at area firehouses, according to Amherst Fire Control.

Meanwhile, in Snyder, investigators believe the fire in the 4500 block of Main -- which caused an estimated $1 million in damage -- started in a front display at Initially Yours, a gift shop in the historic Snyder building that housed several businesses.

There was an estimate of $600,000 in damage to the contents, including expensive wool items at the adjacent Have Ewe Any Wool? yarn shop, according to fire officials.

The initial report of that fire was received at 8:04 p.m. Wednesday from a 911 caller at Brodo restaurant across the street who reported seeing flames coming from the building. Numerous calls then began arriving at the dispatch center.

Snyder Fire Chief Tom Merrill was working dispatch when the calls rolled in.

"Fifty firefighters were on the scene in minutes getting water on that fire, stopping it in its tracks," Merrill said, crediting his first assistant chief, Paul Griebner, with leading "a spectacular job" to save as much of the building and businesses that they did.

Griebner said the proximity of the Snyder Fire Department helped immensely.

"In a building like that, it could have been so much more damaging," Griebner said. "The quicker you can get water on any fire, the better your results are going to be."

Firefighters were able to contain most of the fire damage to the gift shop and a second-floor overhang and fascia board, but fire never made it into "the second-floor proper," Griebner said.

Erie County Legislator Thomas A. Loughran, D-Amherst, who owns Loughran's Bar & Restaurant just west of the fire scene and maintains his legislative office in the burned building that wraps the corner onto Bernhardt Drive, pulled about 50 patrons from the bar.

"I did evacuate the bar, just as a precaution, because it was an intense fire," Loughran said. "The fire department was there quickly. The east end of the building was engulfed in flames."

"We were very fortunate we did not get involved in it," Loughran said, adding that there was some smoke damage in his legislative offices.

There were no occupants in the building when the fire broke out. Building owner Bruce Levine could not be reached to comment Thursday.

Besides the gift and wool shops and Loughran's offices, other businesses displaced by the fire included: VS Jewelers, which also sustained heavy damage, Bellezia Tobacco Shop, The Fahey Group, Salon LeBeau hair and nails and Homestead Financial Services.

A firefighter was treated for chest pains. Eggertsville firefighters, along with those from Main-Transit, who also responded to the Thursday fire, assisted Snyder volunteers.