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Bailey Ave. house razed as fire hazard; Official justified emergency demolition because of poor condition of building

The demolition of a Bailey Avenue house, now subject of a court battle, was necessary because the house was a fire hazard that had been trashed and reeked of gasoline, said Council President Richard A. Fontana.

Fontana said he recently spoke to Permits and Inspections Commissioner James Comerford Jr. about the city's decision to demolish 1801 Bailey, as well as 1805, on an emergency basis in 2009 after a fire at 1805 Bailey.

"The commissioner says [that] when he got to the scene, [1801 Bailey] reeked of gasoline," and therefore Comerford felt 1801 needed to be demolished as well as 1805, Fontana said.

Comerford, through mayoral spokesman Michael DeGeorge, declined to comment Monday, citing the pending litigation the city faces over the demolition.

Fontana said he was at the scene the day after the fire occurred, and he supports Comerford's decision.

"One house was burned out. The other looked like a bomb hit it," Fontana said. "The tenants had broken all the windows and trashed the house. The commissioner said the house reeked of gasoline.

"If the house is doused in gasoline, and is a potential firetrap for firefighters, I am OK with the demolition."

Richard G. Berger, attorney for the property owners who are suing the city over the demolition of their rental properties, said no one in the city has ever mentioned anything to him about gasoline being present at the house. The lawsuit was filed almost a year ago.

"It's the first I heard of it," Berger said. "I have no prior information to confirm that to be true."

There is also no mention of gasoline at 1801 Bailey in the incident report the city released to The Buffalo News on the 1805 Bailey fire. However, that report contains only basic information, such as when the fire occurred, which fire companies responded and when fire crews left the scene.

In addition to that report, Fire Commissioner Garnell W. Whitfield Jr. said he located some notes indicating that the fire caused $35,000 damage to 1805 Bailey and $5,000 to 1801 Bailey.

Whitfield said the Fire Department changed its computer system in recent years, and therefore the information that can be accessed on the December 2009 fire is limited.

The only additional information he was able to obtain, he said, was that both houses were vacant.

Berger said the tenants were evicted from the houses in November 2009.

The News last month requested a copy of the incident report after Christopher and Pamela Szeluga of Elma accused the city of improperly demolishing their buildings without first notifying them of the fire or of the city's plans to knock down the buildings.

The couple's insurance covered part of the fire loss at 1805 Bailey, a four-unit rental property. But insurance would not cover 1801 Bailey, a two-unit rental.

"The insurance company sent an inspector and refused to pay because it was not a covered loss," Berger has previously said. "There was no fire damage. The demolition was just something the city did."

The city initially refused to release a copy of the incident report to The News, citing the lawsuit filed by the Szelugas. The News then filed a formal written request last month under the state Freedom of Information Law, leading to the report being released late Friday.

The incident report says the department received a call at 12:34 a.m. Dec.,1, 2009, of a fire at 1805 Bailey. Firefighters remained on the scene for close to two hours, according to the report.

The report refers to the four-unit structure as 1803 and 1805 Bailey. It makes no reference to 1801 Bailey. The city, did, however, also release a report showing the department received a call at 3:30 p.m. Nov. 24, 2009, of a fire at 1801 Bailey. The report shows firefighters were on the scene about half an hour.

Whitfield said he did not have any additional information on the call, but given the short time firefighters were there, he concluded it was "not very involved."

While the city released a copy of the incident report Friday to The News, it still has not released the report to Berger or the Szelugas, according to Berger.

"I am looking forward to seeing the report," Berger said. "I'm glad the city is starting to be more forthcoming, and we will pursue this matter to get to the bottom."