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Family fears 14-year-old is victim of Lockport fire

The cause of the massive fire at a tire recycling business in Lockport remains under investigation, but the company’s owner said Thursday children intentionally set the fire in a vacant building there.

The fire at HTI Recycling in an industrial neighborhood in the west end of Lockport was still burning Thursday evening although it has been contained.

[Gallery: Fire at Lockport tire recycling factory]

Here are the latest developments:

• No injuries were reported, but a Lockport family is worried that a 14-year-old boy who has been missing since about 5 p.m. Wednesday may have been injured in the blaze. Joe Phillips was last seen walking to visit two of his friends, according to Mark Phillips, his father.

“They haven’t told me much of anything,” Phillips said of the police. “The chief investigator told me they’re still battling the fire and they’ll let me know as soon as they’re able to get in and find anything.”

[UPDATE: Lockport boy trapped in fire made call to friend: 'I can't get out']

Joe Phillips’ older sister wrote on Facebook, “There is no, none, nada official information that my younger brother is even dead. For all we know he escaped the fire and ran away.”
“...he might be scared and he’s hiding to avoid getting into trouble. Until I see his dead body, I will keep believing he’s alive,” Alyssa Phillips wrote.

At a news conference Thursday afternoon, Lockport Police Detective Lt. Todd Chenez said the department knows there are social media reports of someone inside the building at the time of the fire.

“There may be somebody inside the building at the time of the fire,” he said. “There is speculation this individual was inside the building and he has not been heard from since.”

• Derek Martin, owner of HTI Recycling, said that the fire was “maliciously set by kids.”

He said one of his employees has watched a video of intruders setting papers on fire at a vacant building on HTI property on Stevens Street. Martin said he has not seen the video himself and did not know how many intruders were involved. Martin declined to say if the video was a surveillance video or something a witness shot with a cellphone.

• The cause of the fire is under investigation, Lockport Fire Chief Patrick K. Brady said, adding that he has talked to Martin about his statement that the fire was set in a vacant building, but he couldn’t comment on it.

State and Niagara County fire investigators, assisted by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, will be probing the cause.

• At least four structures burned on property owned by HTI Recycling. The building where the fire started Wednesday evening was previously used as an office by a prior tenant, Buffalo Paperboard, Martin said. The fire spread from that building to his storage warehouse, where he had about 8 million pounds of ground-up tires stored, Martin said. From there, the fire spread to the HTI mill, or processing building, and also to another structure rented by a tenant, Willow Creek Farms, which processes wooden playground materials.

Martin said he could not estimate his company’s monetary loss.

• The fire could put some jobs at risk. Martin said he has about 100 people working at HTI. He said he did not know if the fire will cause any loss of jobs. He said he planned to rebuild the business, but said it could take six months to rebuild the buildings and acquire new equipment.

• No houses caught fire. A dwelling on Stevens Street next to the warehouse was in danger, but firefighters quickly wetted it down.

• About 200 homes in the immediate vicinity of the fire were evacuated, according to state officials. Evacuated residents from Stevens Street, Webb Street and some other streets near HTI were instructed to go to the Salvation Army building at Cottage and Walnut streets, Anna Merritt School and North Park Middle School.

Mary Ann McCuen and her daughter, Erin, 24, were evacuated at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday from their house on Webb Street and told to go to North Park Middle School. They didn’t want to leave behind their two dogs, Little Bill, a bichon, and Foster, a lab mix.

“We were panicked because of the dogs,” Erin said. “We got them in our cars and left.”

They were turned away from the shelter at the North Park Middle School because of the dogs, so they spent the night at the Quality Inn on Transit Road, McCuen said.

• Lockport Mayor Anne E. McCaffrey said the Health Department has not identified any significant air quality problem, but others were raising potential health and environmental concerns.
Some of the material that burned is crumb rubber made from ground-up tires at the recycling plant. The main use of that material is as a base for artificial turf athletic fields.

Daniel J. Stapleton, Niagara County’s public health director, said runoff water from the firefighting effort has been contained.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation stated that environmental threats from tire fires like the one in Lockport could include air pollution from acrid, black smoke and an “oily discharge” created from melting tires that can seep into nearby creeks, streams and groundwater.

• Denise Artieri of Lockport said she reported the fire to authorities at 6:40 p.m. Wednesday.

Her husband, Jeff Artieri, said he was working in his Stevens Street driveway when he spotted smoke coming from a storage garage on Stevens Street, near Prospect Street. He told his wife to call the fire department.

“I ran down there and knocked on the door, but nobody answered. So I came back,” Jeff Artieri said.

He said the garage where he spotted smoke is a steel structure that used to be a repair shop, but he believes it is now used as a warehouse.

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