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Inferno at former Bethlehem Steel plant: Then and now

Black smoke billowed out of the former Bethlehem Steel plant over Route 5 in Lackawanna a year ago, spewing plumes that could be seen for days.

There was one minor injury as more than 100 firefighters from multiple agencies battled the city's biggest fire, which caused the evacuation of 300 families, closed schools, disrupted traffic and left the City of Lackawanna digging into their coffers to pay more than $600,000 for things like emergency demolition and overtime for police and firefighters.

Today, most of the outside walls of the old mill are gone; a partial steel and brick framework is all that remains of the building where the fire started. The heaps of bent steel beams have been removed, as has the remains of the cars, boats and recreational vehicles that had been stored in the building at Dr. Bob's Storage. It looks more like a huge parking pad than the remains of an industrial icon.

"I would like to see it come down. It's horribly ugly," said Richard Baldelli, who lives nearby on Pine Street. "People who drive by there, this is what they see, an ugly frame of nothing."

The cause of the fire was never determined. Buffalo Fire Department's Fire Investigation Unit said it's possible that it started when an industrial light bulb broke and a hot piece fell on cardboard and plastic, but no one saw that, so it could not be said for sure if that was the cause.

"It's creepy to not see it there, because it was always there. It's really different," said Lackawanna Mayor Geoffrey M. Szymanski, who grew up in Bethlehem Park next to the old mill. "Every time I drive by I get choked up a little bit."

The fire was discovered about 7 a.m. Nov. 9, a Wednesday, shortly after Industrial Materials Recycling, a post-industrial plastics recycler that was one of about 20 tenants in the building, finished a staff meeting. By 7:30 a.m., flames were shooting out the Lincoln Avenue side of the building, and by 8:30, flames had destroyed the roof and the wall facing Lincoln Avenue had partially collapsed.

It took three days to get the fire under control and another day to extinguish the hot spots.

"Overall, it was a horrific 10 days, but on the same note, I couldn't be any more proud of our first responders," Szymanski said, adding his thanks to Buffalo and surrounding towns. "It really means a lot when you have major situation and you're not abandoned."

Lackawanna firefighters battle a fire at the former Bethlehem Steel site on Route 5 in Lackawanna, N.Y., on Nov. 9, 2016. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Baldelli said his wife was getting ready for work the morning of the fire. After it started, they walked to the edge of the street to watch it. He also saved video from local television broadcasts.

"It was unbelievable," he said. "Anybody that comes to town I show them about the fire."

Lackawanna fire site passed inspection in 2014 without sprinkler system

Norman and Dolores Sambuchi of Madison Avenue watched the fire from their house.

"We were just getting up. My neighbor called, and said 'Look across the street.' We could see the smoke rising above the house tops, a huge, black thing," said Sambuchi, a lifelong resident of the neighborhood who worked at Bethlehem Steel for about 30 years.  "Fortunately the wind was blowing to the south away from us in the beginning."

But the neighborhood did not stay safe. By 1 p.m. the following day, air quality had deteriorated, a state of emergency had been declared and evacuation of the more than 300 homes in Bethlehem Park was ordered.

"Having to evacuate the neighborhood I grew up in was horrible, because I know most of the people," the mayor said.

He would not lift the state of emergency for 11 days, although residents moved back into their homes after several days. Route 5, which had been closed the better part of four days, reopened Nov. 12.

The tests on samples of soot obtained in early December from seven locations throughout Bethlehem Park found no evidence of chemical contamination, according to state and county health officials.

Great Lakes Industrial Development, the owner of the sprawling structure, said it has spent "considerable dollars, time and energy with cleanup and site stabilization," but the company declined to specify the amount of damage or associated costs.

"We are still in the process of planning the future of the site," the company said in a statement. "While our focus is to remain consistent with the industrial, warehousing and trans-loading/logistic services housed at the site, we have a long way to go."

Calling it a "devastating body blow," the statement also said he company appreciates the efforts by the responding fire companies and firefighters.

Boat, car, RV owners wait anxiously to file insurance claims in Lackawanna fire

New York State refused to reimburse Lackawanna for the demolition costs, so the city filed a suit against Great Lakes Industrial, and is negotiating with the company, Szymanski said.

The city's lawsuit was the only one related to the fire filed against Great Lakes Industrial in State Supreme Court.

Szymanski said he never wants the city to experience anything like the fire again, but he remains grateful for the efforts of the firefighters from his city, Buffalo and surrounding towns, and is gratified by the response from the community.

"I can't think of one restaurant that didn't bring food to the fire," he said. "For as bad as the situation was, it ran the best possible way."

Lackawanna fire still burning, but controlled

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