LOCKPORT – Authorities said Tuesday that no one is in custody for starting the massive Lockport tire recycling plant fire and refused to confirm the fire was an arson.
But although they wouldn’t use the word “arson,” officials mentioned several times that the fire was not caused by anything that HTI Recycling did.
And it was clear the investigation is focusing on juveniles, as officials said they were unable to disclose more because the persons under investigation are underage.
“I know we’re kind of tip-toeing around this,” Lockport Police Detective Lt. Todd A. Chenez said at a news conference Tuesday in City Hall. “There are things we can and can’t say, that we can and can’t do.”
That’s primarily because the persons of interest – 14-year-old Joe Phillips, missing since about 90 minutes before the giant fire started last Wednesday evening, and at least one of his friends – are underage.
The stepfather of one of Joe’s friends confirmed Tuesday that his son and another boy have been questioned by police. The man refused to allow a reporter to speak to his son, saying the stepson “had nothing to do with it.”
Multiple law enforcement sources have told The Buffalo News that Phillips and a friend started the fire in a vacant former office building at the Stevens Street side, which is the northeast corner, of the large HTI property. Phillips apparently re-entered the building to try to put the fire out, failed to do so and was trapped inside.
[PHOTO GALLERY: Lockport tire recycling factory catches fire]
A body was found Friday night as fire investigators sifted through the rubble of the fire, which included an estimated 8 million pounds of crumb rubber from recycled tires.
“We’re talking six feet deep of this crumb rubber material with the consistency of bread crumbs.” said Luca C. P. Quagliano, senior fire investigator for the Lockport Fire Department.
It was moved around by excavators and searched bucket by bucket until the human remains were found, Quagliano said.
When Chenez was asked if he had any reason to believe the body was not that of Joe Phillips, he said, “I’m not in a position to say anything in regard to that.”
The boy’s dental records were taken to Erie County Medical Center Monday by Niagara County Coroner Kenneth V. Lederhouse, but he said doctors couldn’t match them to the teeth they had and ordered DNA testing. The dental X-rays were at least three years old.
Alyssa Phillips, Joe’s sister, said Tuesday that a family member, whom she would not identify, has given a DNA sample. She said police have not told the family whether Joe is dead.
Lockport Mayor Anne E. McCaffrey said at the news conference that she expected the body to be identified in the next couple of days.
Chenez said he knows Lockport residents, especially people who live near the fire scene, are “looking for answers,” but he provided few.
“It’s an ongoing investigation within our department, and two, and more importantly, due to the age of the individuals in this case, it prohibits me from discussing really anything about the case,” Chenez said.
He said he expects it will be one or two weeks before his investigation is wrapped up, and then, he will submit his report to the Niagara County Probation Department.
The department reviews allegations against juvenile offenders and decides whether they should be submitted to the Niagara County Attorney’s Office for prosecution in Family Court. The District Attorney’s Office plays no role in the prosecution of juveniles.
“Due to the age of the people or person involved, the final determination will be made by the Niagara County Probation Department,” said the city’s attorney, Corporation Counsel John J. Ottaviano.
He said Family Court will decide whether the proceedings in the case will be public or closed.
“My investigation isn’t complete,” Chenez said. “It would be premature for me to sit here and give you anything further. I can’t stress enough: There’s a lot more work that has to be done in this case, and I’m not going any further than that.”
Ottaviano told reporters, “I know we’re not giving you all the answers you want, but our hands are tied with respect to certain laws regarding individuals of a tender age.”
The fire erupted about 6:30 p.m. Wednesday. Fifty fire companies from five counties, including every fire company or department in Niagara County, were called to Lockport at one time or another before the blaze was officially declared extinguished 1 p.m. Saturday.
McCaffrey said there were water main breaks as a result of the demands placed on the city’s water system by the firefighting effort. She said Summit Street, where the city’s filtration plant is located, will be closed Saturday to repair some of the pipes.
The fire destroyed four of HTI’s buildings, including one containing a substantial amount of tire processing equipment.
Fire Chief Patrick K. Brady said his department responded to a hot spot or two at the site overnight Monday, and that may happen again. The site has been fenced, and Chenez said, “We’re asking everybody to stay out of there. It’s not a good place for anybody to be.”