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2 men die in fast-moving fire at Buffalo rooming house

Randy Hodges stood outside the charred rooming house on Curtiss Street – with a plastic garbage bag filled with belongings in hand – hoping to get inside and recover any other of his items that may have survived Saturday’s devastating fire.

Hodges already knew he lost his home – and his brother.

Hodges said his brother, James E. Hodges, was one of the two victims who died early Saturday morning in the swift-moving fire that swept through the rooming house in the city’s Broadway neighborhood, a few blocks from the Central Terminal.

Firefighters recovered the bodies of the two men near a back door inside the burning Curtiss Street house, said Fire Commissioner Garnell W. Whitfield Jr.

Investigators figure the two were trying to find their way out.

“They were trying to leave the building and did not make it,” Whitfield said.

Nine others escaped the fire unharmed, the commissioner said.

The cause remains under investigation.

Authorities have not released the names of the two victims, but Hodges and other neighbors at the scene said both were in their 60s. One of the men used a wheelchair, while Hodges’ brother had suffered a stroke a year ago and had difficulty walking.

Hodges said he was asleep early Saturday morning when another man in the home woke him up and said the house was on fire. Hodges peered into the man’s room and saw the flames.

“It was running up the wall,” Hodges said.

Hodges ran upstairs to check on his older brother, but before he could get to the room, Hodges encountered a first-responder who ordered him out of the house.

Hodges made it safely outside, where he watched the burning building and waited for any sign of his brother.

“They had to be asleep,” Hodges said.

Hodges and other witnesses watched firefighters bring the victims out of the building and place them on gurneys in the street.

“He didn’t make no noise,” Hodges said of his brother. “I knew it was messed up.”

Hodges said his brother – who was 64 – moved to Buffalo from Mississippi in 1960 and attended Burgard High School. He worked for many years unloading trucks at Rich Products and more recently was employed at a coffee shop downtown. His brother, who was on disability, suffered a stroke about a year ago, which made it difficult for him to walk.

The two victims had been longtime friends, Hodges said.

Firefighters were called at 4:35 a.m. to extinguish the blaze at 392 Curtiss, located at the corner of Geneva Street. The building once housed the Old Depot Inn, a bar and restaurant that catered banquets and parties, but the establishment is no longer open.

When they arrived, firefighters found heavy smoke and fire engulfing the first and second floors of the 2½-story wood structure, officials said. The fire also extended into an attic area of the house, where witnesses saw flames shooting out of the roof.

“When I came out people were coming down the fire escape,” said William Stewart, who lives next door to the rooming house. “Some people were just panicking. It was sort of everyone just rushing to get down.”

Firefighters entered the rooming house to attack the blaze from the inside, but the intensity forced them to pull back until they could douse the flames with more water, Whitfield said. Once they re-entered, firefighters came upon the two victims near a door at the rear of the building.

Investigators are looking into whether the rooming house was operating legally and up to code, the commissioner said.

“That’s something we’re going to be actively pursuing,” Whitfield said.