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Residents displaced as Lackawanna fire still burns

When two Lackawanna firefighters told Lillian Carbone to leave her home Thursday, she began to cry.

“The smell is getting so bad inside our house,” said Carbone, who lives on Lincoln Avenue, near the fire in Lackawanna that has been burning for days. “I’m scared it’s going to explode or something."

"I just hope I don’t lose my house.”

The second day of the industrial fire on the site of the former Bethlehem Steel plant began with Buffalo Fire Commissioner Garnell Whitfield declaring the fire "contained." And as the wind shifted again, residents of the Bethlehem Park area near the fire were evacuated Thursday afternoon.

The section of Route 5 between Lake Avenue and Tifft Street near the former Bethlehem Steel plant will remain closed through Friday morning, officials have announced. Alternate routes from the Southtowns include South Park Avenue, McKinley Parkway, Abbott Road or the state Thruway.

[Gallery: Fire at former Bethlehem Steel site]

Residents of about 300 homes just north of the fire were evacuated based on the results of air quality tests. Authorities went door to door in the Bethlehem Park neighborhood to ask people to evacuate. Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority buses gathered on Route 5 near the site to transport residents.

Even so, some of the residents in Bethlehem Park questioned the need to evacuate when notified by Lackawanna firefighter Frank Dillon, who walked door to door in Bethlehem Park.

“I think it’s kind of stupid,” said Eugene “Sonny” Fini, who gathered his wife and grandchild into his car. “You shut the windows. You shut the doors. I don’t know why we have to get out.”

Jessica Bates, 36, cried as she stuffed blankets, a pillow and some clothes into her car. She and her two dogs would travel to her father’s house on Lakeshore Road, where they would all spend the night.

“You don’t expect to see Bethlehem Steel on fire," said Bates, who lives on Walnut Street. “It was scary. You didn’t know if burning bits of building would come flying toward your home. I’m really upset about leaving.”

Her neighbor, Venus Gau, said she was used to the burnt smell of air after living in the shadow of a steel plant for a quarter-century. The wife and mother of grown children had no intention of leaving.

After the evacuation notice was given, the Red Cross opened a shelter about 2 p.m. at Lackawanna High School where, as of Thursday night, there were 12 people registered, with enough cots set up for 25.

Plenty of supplies were on hand, including donations of water and snacks from Wegmans and coffee from Tim Hortons, said Red Cross spokesman Jay Bonafede. A beef stew dinner was served by the Salvation Army.

Evacuees were understanding of the situation and "grateful" for the Red Cross' assistance, Bonafede said.

"They seemed to be in pretty good spirits," he said. "They're holding up well."

Pets were not allowed in the school's gymnasium, but kennels were set up elsewhere on school grounds to accommodate them, he added.

The shelter was expected to remain open overnight into Friday morning.

“We’re going to make services available to them until they’re safe," said Whitfield.

The Bethlehem Park neighborhood sits adjacent to fire scene and is in the path of where the wind has been blowing smoke on Thursday. No information was immediately available about the precise findings in the air tests.

"We found what you would normally see in smoke, which is carcinogens and other things," Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said early Thursday afternoon but before the evacuation was put into effect.

Whitfield reported that contractors are on scene preparing for immediate demolition of parts of the site so that firefighters can gain access to areas where fire is still burning. Total demolition of the site will happen in the future.

(Google Maps)

(Google Maps)

Lackawanna Mayor Geoffrey M. Szymanski has declared a "state of emergency" for the area, but it was not immediately clear the practical impacts of such a designation.

Szymanski said declaration of the "state of emergency" was based on "what they found in the smoke," though he declined to be more specific.

Assemblyman Michael P. Kearns wants the air monitoring reports made public. He emailed officials at the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the state Department of Health Thursday requesting the reports.

"We need to know what the readings are," Kearns said. "It's great if it's fine, but the air monitoring report – that needs to be made public."

Kearns said he could smell the acrid smoke at his South Buffalo house Thursday morning and received reports from others around South Buffalo, Lackawanna and the Southtowns with similar concerns.

"This is now a state of emergency declared by the City of Lackawanna," Kearns said. "This is some serious stuff."

Kearns is calling for the data from the air monitoring reports to be make available to the public as soon as possible on the web and other means and is asking for state health and environmental officials to hold a public meeting at a time and place in the near future to talk to residents about what they were or were not exposed to in the smoke.

At a Thursday evening press conference, Whitfield said the winds have died down and are no longer impacting the community. He said EPA, DEC, OSHA are still active on the site monitoring the air quality.

In an afternoon statement on the Town of Hamburg's emergency services department Facebook page, it stated the town is cooperating with the EPA with ongoing efforts related to the fire.

Earlier Thursday morning, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo visited the site of the massive fire, which has been burning since early Wednesday.

"Our first order of business is the health and safety of residents," Cuomo said standing in the middle of Route 5, which has been shut down to traffic. "Smoke is the largest problem now."


Lackawanna's schools were closed Thursday as smoke continued to rise from the former Bethlehem Steel plant. Lackawanna city officials recommended the district close schools because winds shifted to the north and smoke from the fire would be blowing over children heading to school, Szymanski said.

Because of the change in wind direction, some residents in Cheektowaga and Amherst reported Thursday morning that they could smell smoke. Other schools closed Thursday include Frontier schools, St. Francis High School and the Randolph Academy's Hamburg campus.

Commuters required to use alternate routes to bypass the continuing blaze in Lackawanna found clogged roadways Thursday morning.

Whitfield told reporters the building is structurally compromised and because of that firefighters have not been able to reach pockets that are still burning. In addition to dealing with shifting winds, heavy equipment is being brought in to move some rubble and take down some of the structure in a controlled way, Whitfield said.

"We're trying to come up with a new operational plan," Whitfield said.

Because the winds have shifted towards South Buffalo, the commissioner said he is briefing both Mayor Byron W. Brown and officials with Buffalo Public Schools.

Air monitoring is ongoing and he has "no major concerns about the plume" of smoke, he said Thursday morning.

Firefighters have been able to prevent the blaze from spreading to the area of a pallet factory of the complex, the commissioner said.

[Gallery of blaze at former Bethlehem Steel in Lackawanna]

Here's some footage of the massive blaze on Wednesday morning:

Changes in wind direction since the fire began means smoke has been blown over different parts of the area.

Buffalo News subscriber Owen G. Byrne II of Eden sent us this picture of some ash he found near his home on Wednesday.


[Gallery of reader-submitted photos of the Bethlehem Steel fire]

On Wednesday night, Lackawanna's mayor estimated two million gallons of water had been used to try to douse the fire up to that point. At the peak of fighting the fire, there were close to 100 firefighters and between 15 and 20 pieces of equipment.

"I don't think there's been a fire like this in Lackawanna ever," Szymanski told reporters Thursday morning. "This is historic. These buildings have always been here and now they're melting. It's the strangest thing I've seen in my life."

Here's more video from the scene on Wednesday:

[Related: Lackawanna blaze disrupts traffic, prompts school closures]

Carbone, the Lincoln Avenue resident, could not sleep the other night while the fire burned.

So, she prayed.

“God, please make this wind stop,” she said.

But the winds only got worse, at times gusting to more than 35 mph.

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