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Reason for Tonawanda police cruiser erupting in flames remains a mystery

What caused a Town of Tonawanda police car to erupt in flames the afternoon of Jan. 12 is unknown and will remain unknown, according to Police Chief Jerome C. Uschold.

Uschold was questioned by the Tonawanda Town Board Monday after he requested permission to dispose of the totaled car, a 2015 Ford Explorer.

"Totaled is being kind," said Supervisor Joseph H. Emminger.

Officer Adam Cavarello was on patrol at about 1:30 p.m. on Delaware Avenue at Mallory Road, near the Youngmann Expressway, when he noticed smoke coming from the dashboard inside the cruiser. He was able to get away from the vehicle before it became engulfed in flames.

Uschold said the officer was also able to remove some equipment, including his patrol rifle and an automatic external defibrillator. Brighton volunteer firefighters responded to extinguish the fire.

"Within seconds of grabbing the stuff, flames started coming out," Ushold said after the meeting.

Emminger asked how far police were in determining what may have led to the fire.

"Nowhere," answered Uschold.

He told Emminger that a rumor that the car had just been serviced was untrue.

He said the department's arson investigators checked the car and the best they could determine was that the fire was electrical in nature. The wiring is for lights, sirens and computers, as well as the basic manufacturer wiring.

"It came from a bundle of wires underneath the dashboard that is put together by the manufacturer, by FM Communications and by our mechanic. All three of them used that bundle and there's no way to tell which of the wires started it," he said.

Uschold told The Buffalo News that he had checked with Ford to see if there had been other similar reports, but he said that was not the case.

"We looked to see if there was a recall or something like that," Ushold said. "There are 15,000 police departments in the country, and half of them are using Ford products and there hasn't been any record of any other police department having this type of issue."

He said it would be difficult to find fault because the fire burned so hot and burned up everything in the vehicle.

The good news, according to Uschold, is that the police department trades in its police cars every two years. He estimated the loss at less than $5,000 - the cost of a trade-in.

"If it were a newer one, we would have to go out an buy a new one at about $40,000," Uschold said. The board approved expending $25,000 from its capital reserve fund towards a 2017 or newer vehicle. The expense is subject to a permissive referendum.

The vehicle was towed from the scene to the police department at no charge by John's Auto Towing. The towing company will also tow it away to be scrapped. Uschold said the towing bill would have been over $1,000.

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