LOCKPORT – Lockport Fire Chief Patrick K. Brady compares firefighters’ protective gear to wearing “70 pounds of snowmobile suit.”
Do that in 90-degree temperatures, in the face of perhaps the biggest inferno in Lockport history, for 19 hours straight, and it will test the endurance of even the toughest smoke-eater.
City Firefighter Kevin L. Seekins told some colleagues that when he was summoned from his home to fight the fire at HTI Recycling about 7 p.m. Wednesday, he looked at the billows of thick, black smoke drifting over the city, and said to himself, “I’m going to need a Snickers bar.”
He also told his wife, “I’ll see you in the morning.”
“And I lied,” Seekins said after finally being relieved at 2 p.m. Thursday.
Lockport’s 34-man fire department was far from alone. In all, more than 200 firefighters from 40 different fire companies played some part in battling the fire, which Brady said probably won’t be completely extinguished until sometime Friday.
Firefighter Matthew Devine spent four hours atop a ladder, directing a stream of water from an electronically controlled fire hose onto the blaze.
Asked what he was thinking, Devine said, “With those big ones, just stay safe.”
About an hour and a half after the fire started, a Wrights Corners pumper was seen about 90 minutes after the fire started, pulled up on the bank of the Erie Canal to pump water from the canal.
Thousands of feet of fire hose were unspooled.
A police officer handling crowd control at Prospect and Stevens yelled to the crowd of bystanders for help in dragging the hose and scores of bystanders immediately dashed under the yellow police tape and ran to aid the effort.
Lt. James B. Keleher said when the first crew arrived about 6:40 p.m. Wednesday, they saw smoke coming from a building that HTI owner Derek Martin identified as the vacant former office of Buffalo Paperboard, an industry formerly located on the site. It was in front of Hillside Children’s Center, a child care center at 66 Stevens St.
“Shortly after that, flames were showing through the roof, like within a minute. We kind of figured, ‘Nobody’s going inside that one,’ ” Keleher said.
Then the roof caved in and a wall collapsed. “So it was basically just trying to protect the building directly in front of it and to the north, by getting water in between them,” he said.
That effort was successful, but there was no hope of preventing the fire from spreading to other HTI buildings, including a warehouse containing 8 million pounds of ground rubber from the tire recycling business.
“It’s such a big area. When we got there it was just the central part that was smoking,” Keleher said. “I think once the roof fell it and (the fire) got all that oxygen, it just pushed the fire along the length of that building.”
At times, drones were used to view the scene from above and transmit pictures that could be used to better direct the water onto the massive fire. The Niagara County Sheriff’s Office helicopter also circled the scene.
Keleher described the series of buildings that burned – the warehouse, a recycling mill and a building rented by a playground material maker – as a row of brick, concrete block and steel buildings, perhaps 30 to 40 feet high.
“It’s hard to tell now, because there’s really nothing left,” Keleher said.
“They all collapsed. All I know was, it was a lot of smoke. A lot of smoke,” said Seekins. “My eyes are just burning.”
As the night and day proceeded, more fire companies came to the scene, and it seemed like a rotation system was set up, with companies coming and going every few hours. Some of the visiting firefighters went to the fire, while others were assigned to pump and haul water. North Tonawanda’s crews were assigned to man the Lockport firehouse and handle any other calls that came in.
“Eventually we were able to rotate guys out,” Keleher said. “We had a rehab trailer, probably close to 2 in the morning, where you could get some water, snack bars, candy bars, bananas.”
The trailer wasn’t air conditioned, but Keleher said, “It was better than standing in the smoke.”
Capt. John F. Sakowski said the breaks were limited. “A few here and there. It is what it is,” he said.
“Everybody was so exhausted. It’s been so hot,” Keleher said.
With the temperature peaking at around 90 Thursdays, the firefighters chugged bottled water and Gatorade and took breaks when they could. But then they'd get right back to the task at hand.
"When you get called, you come. That's what we do," said Andrew Benz, Shelby Fire Department chief, his face and arms covered in black ash.
Firefighters in the trailer were checked out physically, but Brady said no firefighter needed medical attention during the effort.
“Hydration is certainly an issue,” Brady said. “We’re watching for heat exhaustion.”
The Lockport-area volunteer fire companies that rushed to the scene first – South Lockport, Rapids and Wrights Corners and Cambria, soon joined by dozens of others – were invaluable in battling the blaze and keeping it from spreading to homes.
City of Lockport Building Inspector Jason C. Dool said as far as he could tell, damage to homes was limited, mostly to heat damage to vinyl siding.
Brandon Orlikowski of South Lockport, who at 16 is training to be a firefighter, loved being a part of the massive operation.
"It feels awesome because I know I'm helping a lot of people out. So it just feels great."
Bryan White of Ransomville agreed. "It's a lot of strain because it's so hot, but at the same time when you're spraying that water out it's a great feeling to know your'e doing something for the community."
Police from all over Niagara County were called to the scene, too. With all the streets around the fire scene blocked, officers from as far as away as Niagara Falls State Park were seen guarding the barricades.
Niagara County Auxiliary Police Assistant Chief Bob Shepherd was at Stevens Street and West Avenue Thursday morning, directing traffic away from the fire scene. He said he’d been there since 10 p.m. Wednesday and didn’t know when he’d be relieved.
The calls for help continued all night and day. “We’ve got three different trucks here. We were toned out (summoned by radio tones) about 5 a.m.,” said a Shelby volunteer who declined to give his name.
He and a colleague were driving a company vehicle away from the scene about 1:30 p.m., but ended up being pressed into service to haul donated food and drinks, piled at the corner of Stevens and South New York streets by grateful citizens.
As the day wore on, pizza distribution became almost as big a logistical challenge as moving water supplies to the hoses.
“Pick your poison,” one fireman said, pointing to a stack of party-size sheet pizza boxes from almost every pizzeria in Lockport.
“A lot of the neighbors were bringing us stuff while we were trying to fight the fire,” Keleher said.
“We’ve had some overwhelming support,” Assistant Chief Louis A. Farina said. “Two pallets of water out there. Food? Oh my God. They’ve been dropping food off left and right. It’s unbelievable.”
News staff reporters Jane Kwiatkowski Radlich and Jack Howland contributed to this report.