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Firefighters initially held back from Tonawanda Coke blaze, fire chief says

When fire companies responded to reports of a blaze Monday night at Tonawanda Coke, they were not exactly welcomed with opened arms.

Sheridan Park Fire Chief James Chatham said his entrance was blocked by a high lift and an operator who said he was "just doing his job."

On Tuesday morning, Chatham was still shaking his head over what happened.

"I was stunned," Chatham said. "I really didn’t fully understand what he was doing. It made no sense to me. I've never experienced anything like that."

Emergency responders eventually were allowed onto the property and the company later explained what had happened: a power failure that affected the control of the dampers on the coke ovens causing a fire to grow as it was being fed by excess gasses. And although there was no damage to the facility, local authorities said they plan to investigate further.

The incident began when nearby residents noticed what some described as a "large fire" at Tonawanda Coke, the 101-year-old coke producer on River Road.

"I saw a large fire from River Road, about a block out, and called for additional support," said Chatham, whose Sheridan Park volunteers were joined by assist teams from the City of Tonawanda and Grand Island.

Chatham said that when his team arrived at the industrial facility, "the guards asked why I was there and who called me. ... My understanding was that what was going on was normal to them."

Chatham described an "agreement" with Tonawanda Coke that says "if we arrive on site and they say it's normal operations, by their definition, they have two people back" to check. Chatham said the agreement is in place because, over the years, emergency calls have been placed by neighbors for nonemergency situations.

Regarding Monday night, Chatham said: "It appeared to be larger than normal operations, in my opinion."

After the initial blocking of the entrance, Chatham and a Town of Tonawanda inspector were escorted back. He confirmed that the fire was smaller than what he had seen from the road and that Tonawanda Coke crews were working to correct what had happened.

Tonawanda Coke issued a statement just after 2 a.m. Tuesday.

"The fire department, while appreciated, responded to inaccurate calls of a structure fire hampering personnel from their procedures and prevented additional management crews from gaining access to the facility to assess the situation," the statement read.

The statement also said that "a fire chief's SUV and Town of Tonawanda inspector were escorted onto the property" to observe Tonawanda Coke personnel "execute their standard operating procedures and then exited the facility as operations returned to normal."

Tonawanda Coke's statement said that there had been a power outage at the plant and that "a preliminary investigation by Tonawanda Coke electricians and National Grid personnel indicates that a bird strike may have shorted the power line at TCC’s electric substation on the Niagara River."

"The company followed its standard operating procedures for this circumstance," the statement read.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz Tuesday morning ordered the Erie County Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Services to look into fire, and the following report was issued in the afternoon:

  • It appears that at some time near 9 p.m. Tonawanda Coke lost power. The power loss affected the control of the dampers on the Coke ovens. Without the ability to control the dampers the fire grew with the excess gasses.
  • The fire quickly grew outside of the coke ovens due to the gas buildup. When a nearby fire department (Sheridan Park) saw the large glow from their Fire Station, the chief went to investigate. The Fire Chief was stopped at the guard gate and was asked by the guard what he was doing there. He explained to the guard that they could see the glow from the large fire at their fire station and many calls were coming in about concerns over the visible fire. The guard told him to wait for a manager, when a high lift was driven and parked in from of his Chief’s vehicle to block his ability to enter the property to determine the extent of the fire.
  • The Tonawanda Fire Departments were eventually granted access and at some point a plant employee arrived that had the ability to run the onsite generator. Once the generator was started the dampers were closed and the fire became under control. There was no structural damage to the facility.

A press release from Poloncarz's office states that updates will be forthcoming, "including whether any criminal charges could be logged against Tonawanda Coke or its employees" for "obstructing firefighting operations." According to reports, the state Department of Environmental Conservation also was notified and will investigate.

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