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Bethlehem fire aftermath: ‘My normal life wasn’t a toxic, soot-filled home’

Blackish soot rings stain the popcorn ceiling above living room fans in Clarence “Butch” Yeager’s home on Spruce Street.

One block east, Ashley Torres fears for the health of her infant daughter Penelope, whose crib was covered in toxic soot in the family’s Pine Street home.

Just doors away, Amy Claroni stows away a four-day-old furnace filter saturated in charcoal-colored soot as evidence of what invaded a generations-old family home she’s worked with pride to renovate.

These are some examples of what residents must deal with in Bethlehem Park, the Lackawanna neighborhood just outside the charred ruins of the former steel plant that burned for days in a massive inferno two weeks ago.

Other residents tell tales of steam cleaning rugs, scrubbing interior walls and power washing anything else outdoors – even the lawn.

“It’s everywhere. It’s on everything,” Yeager. “My whole house is ruined.”

But what was in the smoke – and the soot that caked on their homes – has residents on edge.

Some of that is known.

[RelatedCarcinogenic smoke was high during Bethlehem fire, DEC data shows]

They include carcinogenic benzene, vinyl chloride, butadiene and styrene, data from the state Department of Environmental Conservation air monitors show.

But other hazardous byproducts from the combustion of the fiberglass boats, antique cars, jet skis, tons of plastic recyclables and the building’s materials – including asbestos and possibly legacy radioactive elements from the steel industry – are not yet determined.

“We don’t know what the hell came out of there,” said John Ryan of Beech Street.

Yeager Family

It’s been a tough two years at 103 Spruce St.

The rear of the bungalow-style home near the corner of Lincoln Avenue caved in under the weight of heavy snowfall during the double lake-effect snowstorms of November 2014, taking the kitchen roof with it.

Now, less than two years later, and the nearby industrial fire has made toxic burnt toast out of his money and repair work.

Yeager’s once-white living room ceiling has taken on grayish pall. There are soot stains on the new dropped ceiling in the kitchen he just installed.

Rub your finger along the light-blue siding outside his home, and it turns black.

The soot is on the rugs, the living room couch, kitchen cupboards, cooking pots, stove, toaster and foodstuffs. And  upstairs – in the bedding, closets and clothes.

Clarence "Butch" Yeager from the Bethlehem Park neighborhood has been cleaning up for over a week inside his home and shows off what he just wiped from the walls, after a fire at the former Bethlehem Steel Plant , in Lackawanna, N.Y., on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2016 he shows soot he has been wiping from walls in his home. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Clarence "Butch" Yeager from the Bethlehem Park neighborhood has been cleaning up for over a week inside his home and shows off what he just wiped from the walls on Wednesday afternoon. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

It’s the mess Yeager, Amanda Bollstad and the two children they’re raising returned to late on Nov. 13 after a four-day evacuation.

“When I came back, my house was full of smoke,” Yeager said. “I opened the door, and smoke came out.”

But the house was not on fire.

It reeked of burnt plastic or an electrical fire, he said.

“We went and bought incense, and potpourri, and spray,” Bollstad said.

Almost two weeks after the fire, you can still feel it when you breathe inside the home. It makes your nose itch, and your throat dry.

Yeager said the family dealt with headaches and respiratory problems in the week after returning home.

“You could taste it,” Yeager said.

The lingering taste was like “a metal spoon, or if you put a penny in your mouth.”

Yeager has lived in Bethlehem Park nearly all his life. He also knows a bit about what was inside the building that burned.

Just a couple years ago, Yeager said he worked for Industrial Materials Recycling supervising the plastics recycling operation there.

Instead of milk jugs, plastic bottles and food items, IMR ground up items like car parts, crude oil tanks, flower pots, outdoor playground equipment and other items made of polystyrene and different types of plastic.

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Related: A look inside the charred remains of the Bethlehem Steel building

Gallery: Wreckage of the Bethlehem Steel site

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IMR leased space from the property owners, Great Lakes Industrial Development.

Yeager said there was no running water in the building. Employees used portable toilets for restrooms, and no place to wash your hands.

Still, for all the pain and aggravation, Yeager admits it could have been even worse.

“If the wind would have come this way that first day, we’d have lost all of our houses,” Yeager said.

Torres family

Ashley Torres, a mother of three young children including an infant daughter, was one of the first neighbors to see the Nov. 9 conflagration.

Torres, 27, a Lackawanna native, was in her minivan driving her 7-year-old daughter Annabelle to school just before 7:30 a.m. She’d left her mother at her 102 Pine St. home with 11-day-old Penelope.

Unbeknownst to Torres, the fire just three doors away from the Bethlehem property was already underway.

Her modest two-story home would never be the same as when she left it that morning.

Last weekend, the family – including Torres’ husband, baby, 2-year-old Vinny and Annabelle – finally returned after spending time in hotels and with relatives.

In the interim, the family spent nearly two weeks cleaning it.

“My heart broke every time I had to come here,” Torres said. “We hit our street and the air was horrible. It was just as bad inside as it was outside.”

They found black soot coating all the kitchen countertops and everything in their kitchen. There was a  haze and awful odor.

The couple had recently put in new living room carpeting that now had soot bordering its edges. Her infant’s crib had soot on it.

A church friend cooked a meal after Torres had her baby, and it was wrapped in a plastic Aldi’s bag in their kitchen freezer. The bag was covered with a film of soot inside their freezer. They had to throw all their food away.

“My fridge is bare. We threw everything out. We can’t take a chance on that stuff,” Torres said.

The couple took bedding and curtains to a laundromat and hired a professional cleaner to do their carpets, furniture and duct work.

The expenses, including hotel stays, meals and cleanup, started to mount to more than $1,000, and Torres feels there’s still more to do.

The family’s Thanksgiving tradition of hosting 30 people was relocated to her father-in-law’s home in Kaisertown this year.

“We’re still trying to find out normal,” Torres said. “My normal life wasn’t a toxic, soot-filled home.”

Still, although expensive, all of those things can be replaced.

The health and safety of her family is another matter. And that scares Torres.

Torres recalled taking her children home between the time the evacuation was lifted and when they moved home for good last Sunday.

“(Penelope) was choking the entire time we were here. I broke down,” Torres said. “My 7-year-old cried the entire time. Her eyes burned and she could feel it in her chest.”

Even now, Torres feels as though she has a persistent headache. She fears the potential health effects on her children likely won’t be known for years.

“My home will never be the same,” Torres said. “You don’t know what you’re breathing in.”

Affected residents

The plight of residents like Yeager and Torres are replayed throughout the streets of the smallish Bethlehem Park neighborhood.

Everyone seems to have a story.

Claroni still isn’t living home. Even though she’s been running an air purifier around-the-clock inside the house, she still doesn’t feel safe there.

“I am still living here, but I’m not staying here,” Claroni said.

Her late father was once a steelworker in the building that burned and often warned his family to be wary if fire ever broke out.

Amy Claroni holds her furnace filter filled with black soot after changing it last Saturday. Claroni, the daughter of a former steelworker, has been researching some of the chemicals, and materials released by a fire at the former Bethlehem Steel plant, and worries that they may have an impact on her and her neighbors health at her home in Bethlehem Park. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Amy Claroni holds her furnace filter filled with black soot after changing it last Saturday. Claroni, the daughter of a former steelworker, has been researching some of the chemicals, and materials released by a fire at the former Bethlehem Steel plant, and worries that they may have an impact on her and her neighbors health at her home in Bethlehem Park. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

It’s why Claroni is doing her own personal research and is now among those leading a call for more detailed testing as to what she and her fellow neighbors are dealing with.

Citing the DEC report that shows elevated levels of particulate matter and volatile organic compounds passed through the neighborhood when the smoke drifted off of the site of the blaze, Claroni remains concerned state data doesn’t address issues like asbestos, PCB toxins, uranium, acids or other materials.

“They’re giving us information as it relates to a general fire. This does not equate to a general fire,” Claroni said.

[Related: DEC reports 'very unhealthy' to 'hazardous' air quality during Lackawanna fire]

“And what happens now when they demo this building?” she asked.

Two streets to the west at U.S. Army Airborne veteran John Ryan’s Beech Street home, it’s been about caring for Mia, the family’s Pomapoo – and worrying about what she’s tracking into the house.

Mia leaves the house white and comes back inside with paws that are charcoal black.

“We’ve been bathing her constantly,” Ryan said.

He added: “We’re concerned about the aftermath. We want to know what’s in the air.”

Eileen Walh isn't even from Bethlehem Park and she wonders herself.

Walh lives four miles away near the busy Town of Hamburg intersection at Southwestern and Camp Road and was still picking large chunks of charred debris out of her yard this week.

Eileen Wahl of Hamburg, N.Y. who lives about 4 miles from the former Bethlehem Steel Plant , in Lackawanna, N.Y., on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2016 shows off charred debris she bagged that landed in her yard. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Eileen Walh of Hamburg shows off charred debris she bagged that landed in her yard from the Nov. 9 at the former Bethlehem Steel plant. Walh lives four miles away from the scene of the fire. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Walh visited Lincoln Avenue Wednesday to catch a glimpse of the ruins from the blaze that littered her yard with the debris.

The items are roughly 3- to 5-inch pieces of charred material that appear to be Styrofoam or some other light plastic material. Also embedded within the melted chunks are fibrous hair-like items.

"It was unbelievable." Walh said of the fire, even from Hamburg. "The smell? It smelled like plastic burning."

 

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