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Lackawanna blaze disrupts traffic, prompts school closures

Smoke – the likes of which hasn’t been seen in Lackawanna since the glory days of Bethlehem Steel – billowed again Wednesday from an inferno at a former steel mill, possibly sparked by a burst lightbulb. The spectacular blaze shut down state Route 5 and draped parts of the Southtowns in an ominous plume that stretched for miles and could be seen from as far away as Canada.

The blaze, which was believed to have started around 7 a.m. and still burned strongly late Wednesday, prompted a huge emergency response:

• More than 100 firefighters from Lackawanna, Buffalo, Hamburg and other towns were joined at the scene by staff from the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

• Children from two elementary schools in the Frontier Central School District in Hamburg were bused to other schools away from the thick, black smoke that reeked of burning plastic. Frontier schools will be closed today.

• Lackawanna Mayor Geoffrey M. Szymanski said officials will meet at 6 a.m. Thursday to decide on whether Lackawanna schools should be closed.

• Traffic was diverted off Route 5, a main artery from the city to the Southtowns, backing up rush-hour inbound traffic onto Milestrip Road and delaying commutes into the city by 30 minutes or more. Authorities said Route 5 will continue to be closed between Tifft Street and Lake Avenue through Thursday afternoon at least.

• Police asked residents of Lincoln Avenue, off Route 5, to leave their homes amid fears that the building would collapse; much of it eventually did.

• Hamburg police reported falling, burning debris across the town and urged residents to keep doors and windows closed, while authorities instructed residents from Lackawanna to Athol Springs to “shelter in place.”

Authorities weren’t sure how long it would take to put out the fire. Szymanski estimated that “possibly 2 million gallons of water had been used” on the blaze by Wednesday night.

“This operation is going to go on for quite some time; this is a large fire,” said Gregory J. Butcher, deputy commissioner of the Erie County Department of Emergency Services. “Potentially, the fire could continue for quite some time.We can’t put a time frame on that.”

Some Lackawanna residents said that it could have been a lot worse, if winds had been blowing off Lake Erie, out of the west, as they typically do. A neighborhood of old frame homes known as Bethlehem Park sits just to the north and east of the complex where the fire broke out.

“It could have been horrific. We’re very lucky it was blowing toward the industrial area,” said Michael J. Sobaszek, executive director of the Lackawanna Chamber of Commerce. “Had the wind been blowing towards those houses, it would have been catastrophic for that neighborhood. For some reason, we got an odd wind today.”

‘A lot of things burning’

The complex where the fire broke out is part of a 70-acre site at 2800 Hamburg Turnpike known as Steel Works Industrial Park. Great Lakes Industrial Development bought the site in 2010 and redeveloped it. The complex formerly housed Bethlehem Steel’s galvanizing plant, cold mill and hot mill operations when the steel plant was operational, according to the City of Lackawanna’s updated comprehensive plan.

Great Lakes Industrial Development paid $3.5 million to buy a 160-acre site of Bethlehem Steel’s former galvanized products division, cold mill and hot mill facilities. The previous owner, global steelmaker ArcelorMittal, shut down the plant in May 2009 as it curtailed U.S. steel production.

The site of the fire is the former cold mill, a million-square-foot building that is about 65 percent leased. It’s roughly the size of six city blocks.

“It’s a big facility. … There’s a lot of things burning,” said Buffalo Fire Commissioner Garnell W. Whitfield Jr.

A variety of business operations inside the building – from metal fabrication to cold storage to paper and plastic recycling and pallet manufacturing – have made it difficult to contain the fire, Butcher said. One of the buildings is used to store cars, boats, recreational vehicles and personal watercraft.

The Erie County Sheriff’s Office Air 1 helicopter was in the air using its thermal imaging technology to pinpoint hot spots inside the building.

One firefighter suffered a broken ankle and was taken to a hospital.

Early Wednesday, Fred K. Heinle, director of development for Lackawanna, told reporters at the scene that a “hot lightbulb” fell, sparking the blaze when it came into contact with combustible materials. But Whitfield said that fire marshals and ATF officials were still investigating the cause.

The wind was blowing out of the north all morning at 10 to 20 mph, forcing the billowing black smoke up and southeastward from the scene.

The dark cloud of smoke quickly rose up to and followed a path along a low-hanging ceiling of clouds, coloring them charcoal black.

It left a long streak through the heart of the Southtowns sky for several hours that was picked up by National Weather Service radar at Buffalo Niagara International Airport in Cheektowaga. The 8:15 a.m. radar image showed the plume extended from Lackawanna due south through the Town of Eden, and the dark smoke was observed from as much as 30 miles away, including across Lake Erie in Canada.

Emergency officials said they will release further information about the potential shift in winds and what actions may be taken involving schools and parts of the Orchard Park community where the plume had shifted by early Wednesday afternoon.

The exact components in the fire were still being assessed by state environmental officials, but plastics are believed to have been involved. The fire heavily damaged space occupied by Industrial Materials Recycling. IMR is a plastics recycling firm that “grinds discarded plastics products into granular plastic that is sold to manufacturers (where) the material is recycled into the manufacturing process,” owners of the site stated.

Fire crews from multiple departments remained on the scene into the afternoon Wednesday, pouring water into the burning complex, which sits just 750 feet away from Smokes Creek.

Heavily contaminated from decades of steel-making around it, Smokes Creek has been the subject of dredging work for environmental cleanup and flood-mitigation in recent years. Smokes Creek is a tributary that empties into Lake Erie about a mile downstream from the site of the fire.

Water supplies to homes and businesses were not affected by the fire, according to the county Health Department. “The water supply is from the Erie County Water Authority,” stated Dr. Gale R. Burstein, the county health commissioner. “Erie County Water Authority reports that there is no impact on water supply or water quality due to the fire.”

EPA sets up air monitoring

EPA officials set up air-monitoring equipment in the vicinity of the site and hazardous materials teams from the county have four air-sampling sites downwind in Hamburg, health officials said.

“Testing conducted for volatile organic compounds are showing readings of zero, and oxygen levels in ambient air are normal,” Burstein said. “People who live or work in the surrounding area can expect the extremely unpleasant smell from the fire to linger for a few days to weeks.”

Burstein added: “The smell may be aggravating, but the odor itself poses no health risk.”

The health commissioner said residents around the site and downwind of it may notice “a layer of fine soot” on their houses and outside equipment.

It can be removed by hosing those areas down or washing them with “a mild detergent solution,” she said.

Health officials advised residents to avoid touching the ashes or soot and to “wash your hands, change your clothes or shower” if contact is made.

Lackawanna is paying overtime for the ongoing work of police, fire and other workers, Szymanski said at a briefing Wednesday evening. “Safety first” continues to dictate how the city is dealing with the situation, he said.

Firefighters anticipated working at the scene for “a couple of days,” Whitfield said.

“There’s a lot of work to do after the fire is put out,” he said. “The rubble has to be moved around to make sure any pockets underneath that might be still burning are fully extinguished.”

A number of explosions could be heard coming from inside the building before the roof collapsed. An employee told a Buffalo News reporter that the fire started around 7 a.m.

Russell Dailey lives on Pine Street, just north of the fire scene. He was leaving home with his wife as he drove her to work. “As soon as we came outside, we saw the black smoke,” Dailey said. “God only knows what’s in there. Probably asbestos lining the walls.”

By the time he was headed back home, police had blocked off part of Route 5.

“I had to park my car on the other side of the First Ward,” said Dailey, who walked home from near Smokes Creek.

News Staff Reporters Aaron Besecker, Stephen T. Watson, Mark Sommer, Jane Kwiatkowski Radlich and Matt Gryta contributed to this report.

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