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In wake of Nevada Avenue fire, city points to redundancy in hydrants

City officials insisted Monday that Buffalo fire hydrants are safe and reliable following a Sunday malfunction that may have contributed to the destruction of one Nevada Avenue home and heavy damage to another.

Public Works Commissioner Stephen J. Stepniak emphasized that “redundancy” is built into the system so that nearby hydrants can take over in the event of malfunction, and that city residents should feel confident about fire protection.

But after watching fire crews stymied by a defective hydrant on Sunday, Charles Quigley and Vanessa Emma Plair remain unimpressed by the city’s assurances. On Monday, they were surveying the rubble of the Plair family home at 55 Nevada, and the scorched facade along with water damage at the Quigley residence at 53 Nevada, and still wonder why their homes were not saved.

After Quigley summoned the Buffalo Fire Department shortly before 1 p.m. Sunday and crews arrived almost immediately to the burning home next door, he watched in horror as they struggled with a broken hydrant thread just across the street. Then the flames spread to his own house.

Quigley does not accept Fire Commissioner Garnell W. Whitfield Jr.’s version that crews experienced no significant delays.

“I was here the entire time, and it’s unbelievable that he said that,” Quigley said, “because when they were first here they were about 15 minutes trying to find a water source. That’s totally unbelievable.”

Quigley said he was “running around hysterical” and begging crews to get water on his house as the fire that started at 55 Nevada began eating up the eastern facade of his house at 53 Nevada.

But Whitfield on Monday adamantly defended the actions and procedures of his crews in the Sunday fire. He said a pumper truck arrived on the scene within three minutes of receiving the alarm, and immediately began expending its 750-gallon capacity as crews attempted to link to the defective hydrant. Because 55 Nevada was fully engulfed in flames, he said firefighters concentrated on limiting the exposure damage to 53 Nevada.

“They established a water supply [the defective hydrant], found it to be in a damaged state, and immediately sought another hydrant,” the commissioner said. “That’s what we do.”

He said firefighters followed all standard operating procedures, that water was aimed at the fire immediately upon arrival, and that his crews would have laid large hoses to the high volume water supply on Genesee Street in any event. He said firefighters experienced no significant delays, and that the defective hydrant constituted an “aberration.”

“As lay persons, they have no clue as to how we operate,” Whitfield said of complaints. “They operate from a place of ignorance, quite frankly.

“Our rigs arrive with a significant water supply to immediately fight the fire,” he added. “That’s what happened yesterday.”

He also disputed claims that crews required at least 15 minutes to fight the fire after encountering the defective hydrant.

“In an emergency scene, minutes can seem like an hour,” he said, challenging detractors’ versions unless they had “a tape recorder and a stop watch.”

Stepniak, meanwhile, explained that the Nevada Avenue hydrant was last used just a few days ago as private crews from the Geiter Down firm demolished a nearby vacant home. He blamed a cracked thread for the inability of firefighters to connect to the hydrant, even though tests revealed sufficient water pressure Monday morning.

“They made the right call,” he said, in connecting to a Montana Avenue hydrant one block over and running large hoses to a Genesee Street main.

But he also ordered his crews to replace the hydrant on Nevada because of “a problem with attaching.”

“When in doubt, we always replace,” he said, pointing to the significant task of regularly inspecting 7,000 city hydrants.

But the fire victims are also sticking to their version.

“There was absolutely a delay; a crucial delay,” Quigley countered on Monday.

Rogers Hicks, office manager for the Louis Rosado law firm at Nevada and Genesee, reiterated Monday that he and Bill Kessel, who was attending a business meeting in the office, witnessed the delays caused by the hydrant malfunction. He challenged Whitfield’s contention that the problem did not complicate fire fighting efforts.

“That statement is just totally inaccurate,” Hicks said, adding that his law firm intends to represent the victims of the fire in action against the city.

“We believe the city failed to provide proper services in this community and we will be able to show that,” he said, adding his clients will demonstrate needed services such as functioning hydrants are not provided in the black community.

Hicks said Sunday that he and Kessel have video of the firefighting response that “clearly refutes” Whitfield’s explanation.

“That’s a fabrication and we can prove that,” he said.

Hicks acknowledged that a prior notice of claim is usually required in litigation against municipalities, but that the thrust of a potential action could contend the city is not providing resources to East Side neighborhoods.

“We are not showing our hand, but we have evidence to show that statement is inaccurate and false,” he said. “You will hear more from us on this. We intend to pursue this on behalf of the victims.”

Quigley said again Monday that he had no insurance on the home that is now heavily damaged, and that he will have to “rely on whatever help comes my way.”

“Hopefully, the city will reach out and try to give some support,” he said.

Plair, whose mother owns the home at 55 Nevada, stood before the rubble on Monday that housed all of her family’s possessions. She also said such a malfunction would not occur in Amherst or Williamsville, but only in a poor neighborhood.

Plair also hinted that she remains suspicious about the fire’s origin.

“I’m just trying to figure out who did this,” she said. “This was done by someone.”

She added that a “convoluted story” served as the basis for her suspicions.

Whitfield said the cause of the fire and $180,000 damage to the pair of homes, officially remains under investigation. But he also said arson has not been discounted.

“We are cognizant of that possibility, and we are investigating as we speak,” he said.

Fillmore Council Member David A. Franczyk, who represents the area in City Hall, said he intends to ask several questions about Fire Department procedures and its response to the Sunday blaze.

“Do we anticipate these things that happen rarely, but do happen?” he asked.

News Staff Reporter Susan Schulman contributed to this report. email: