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A look inside the charred remains of Bethlehem Steel building

From Route 5, motorists still slow down to catch a sight of the charred hull of the former Bethlehem Steel that burned in a massive inferno nearly two weeks ago.

On the inside, what you see are the details amidst the ashes.

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Gallery: Wreckage of the Bethlehem Steel fire site

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A burned out fork-lift submerged under twisted, blackened I-beams.

Collapsed brick walls into what may have been an office area.

A cracked vintage exit sign hanging above a door frame that no longer holds a door.

A socket encased in charred ashes. Metal tools. A wheel-and-pulley system. Even, ironically, fire extinguishers.

All survived the heat and flames but now are rusting from the oxidation of the water used to put the blaze out.

Then, there's a pungent, and unremitting, smell of fire.

"These buildings are the reason why we became a city," said Geoffrey Szymanski, Lackawanna mayor. "To see it like this is so sad."

 

Szymanski led a delegation of local politicians and the media on a tour of the site Monday morning.

"We're standing here in a building that for decades was a symbol of work and prosperity, and now we're standing in the rubble due to this catastrophic fire," Szymanski said.

Szymanski was flanked by Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown, state Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy, Assemblymen Michael P. "Mickey" Kearns and Sean Ryan, Buffalo Fire Commissioner Garnell W. Whitfield Jr., Lackawanna Fire Chief Ralph Galanti and Fred K. Heinle, director of development for the city of Lackawanna.

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Lackawanna Mayor Geoffrey Szymanski points out some of the damage at the former Bethlehem Steel mill that burned in a massive fire earlier this month. (T.J. Pignataro/Buffalo News)

As the delegation gandered inside the charred shell of the once massive mill, it felt almost like entering a gargantuan football stadium at field level.

Four walls, darkened black by the smoke from a blaze that took more than three days to fully extinguish, provided vertical backdrops, opening up to blazing sunlight and an azure sky overhead, which was formerly covered by a roof, which collapsed in the fire.

Inside the shell of the structure are heaps of bent steel and other debris that rested on a spongy bed of the charred detritus of the fire.

During the tour. gusty west winds frequently stirred up some of that debris and sent it through the hollowed out mill as if it were being blown through a tunnel.

Other pieces of the steel super-structure tenuously creaked in the wind.

"When you look at this building, you can't believe the destruction," Ryan said.

Added Kennedy: "This was clearly a devastating fire, not just for the city of Lackawanna and the neighboring homes, but the entire Western New York community."

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Some of the tools that were left behind by the fire. (T.J. Pignataro/Buffalo News)

What was missing were the RVs, classic cars and boats that were being stored inside. They were consumed in the conflagration along with the cardboard and plastic recycling business there.

Officials are still trying to determine how the incident will be paid for, including reimbursements to the cities of Lackawanna and Buffalo, insurance payouts to residents affected by the fire and those who lost property in the blaze.

Demolition costs alone are pegged at a half-million dollars or more with $100,000 due in overtime costs for firefighting efforts.

"We're hoping the state of New York can come through and assist us," Szymanski said.

Monday's tour preceded this evening's community meeting between Bethlehem Park residents, local leaders, the DEC and health department officials. It will be held at 5:30 p.m. in the Lackawanna Senior Center, 230 Martin Road.

Kearns was one of those who led the charge for getting state officials to meet with city residents including those in the adjacent Bethlehem Park neighborhood in that public forum setting.

"One of the things we did recommend is that if they could meet with the residents on a one-on-one basis even after the meeting to answer all their questions," Kearns said. "There are some concerns, and we're still waiting on some reports when it comes back to the air quality."

"This is an open and transparent process. All this information is public information."

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Panoramic view of the inside of the burned out mill. Officials said fire investigators believe that the origin of the fire is close to the area where the fallen-in white brick wall is near the left-center of this image. (T.J. Pignataro/Buffalo News)

Like Kearns, Kennedy said he's also visited neighborhood residents and was astounded by the amount of soot that landed on Bethlehem Park.

What he found on the inside of some houses especially concerns him.

"You can swipe your hand and find the soot on anything and everything. Rugs. Kitchen cabinets. Furniture. Walls. Everything," Kennedy said.

He added: "For good reason, there's a tremendous amount of concern about not only their homes, but their health."

 

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