The first thing Michael Bernhardt heard were panicked voices. When he opened his eyes, he understood why: Flames were coming from the house next door.
“It was 2:30 in the morning – I heard people screaming," said Bernhardt of 1076-1078 Elmwood. "I woke up and saw the orange glow in my leaded glass windows. I opened the [second-floor] porch doors and the fire was in the front on the second floor and it was blowing and the flames were carrying to my house already."
The three-alarm fire was coming from 1074 Elmwood, a three-story structure which burned nearly to the ground in the early-morning hours Wednesday.
Authorities said five people lived in the building and that they believe at least one of the residents was not home at the time of the fire. Three male tenants were sent to the hospital; two 60-year-olds are in critical condition and a 40-year-old is in stable condition.
Fire officials say that another male tenant remained unaccounted for Wednesday. Larry Patti, the owner of the now burned-down building, said a fifth tenant had found a place to stay.
“I’m just worried about the one tenant who’s unaccounted for,” Patti said.
Fire officials estimated a loss of $450,000 to the house. What was left of the structure was demolished as an excavator spent much of the morning knocking down walls and gathering a large pile of charred rubble where the house had stood on one of the city's more well-traveled blocks. Across the street are Pano's on Elmwood and Mister Pizza. To the north are Mister Goodbar and Coles, to the south is Cameron's 24-Hour Store with the signature "We Never Close" signage. Elmwood was closed between Bird and Forest avenues for much of the morning and reopened to traffic late afternoon.
"I was worried about getting people out of my house — I didn’t see who came out of there [next door],” said Bernhardt, 43. “I heard the people yelling to a guy to get out — like, ‘Sir, get out of the house, it’s on fire.’ But I don't know who they were talking to or where in that place he was. ... It's horrible."
Firefighters and demolition crew on site at Elmwood Ave. between Forest and Bird as crews look for missing person after overnight fire. pic.twitter.com/vq0XkEvvUj
— John Hickey (@jhickeyBN) May 8, 2019
“It’s devastating,” said Patti. “That’s why you have to thank God every night before you go to sleep; you don’t know what’s going to happen when you get up — if you get up.”
Elmwood Print Out, a commercial printing business, operated out of the first floor. Fire officials said the blaze began at 2:26 a.m.; the cause of the fire, which Buffalo Fire Commissioner William Renaldo said started on the second floor, is still being investigated.
Firefighters rescued one man from the second floor of the three-story building, Renaldo said. That man suffered burns to his hands and feet. Two other men were being treated for smoke inhalation. All were taken to Erie County Medical Center.
At an afternoon news conference, he said crews were using heavy equipment to dig through the debris and rubble.
"Hopefully that's not the case, but we are looking for him at the scene," Renaldo said of the missing tenant.
A cadaver dog from the Erie County Sheriff's Office was being used in the search Wednesday afternoon.
Firefighters had to quickly abandon a primary search of the building because of concerns about the integrity of the structure, the commissioner said.
"There wasn't much left of the building after the fire was put out," Renaldo said.
Fire officials estimate Bernhardt's building next door sustained about $150,000 in damage. The building on the other side of the fire, 1068 Elmwood, which had visible damage to its siding along the rear right side of the structure, sustained an estimated $10,000 in damage.
As Bernhardt realized what was happening, he raced to make sure his tenants in the first- and third-floor apartments got out safely.
“I got my dog in his harness and I called my third-floor tenant and she didn’t answer so I ran up and started beating on her door,” Bernhardt said. He said his two cats, Burt and Loni, are missing. Firefighters allowed him in to look for them Wednesday morning, to no avail.
Rob Sozanski, 29, who lives across the street at 1075 Elmwood, slept through the fire and was surprised by the scene when he took his dog out this morning. “When I came out, there was a demolished house. It was absolutely shocking.”
Razing of the structure continues. pic.twitter.com/I0xnu6zbuS
— John Hickey (@jhickeyBN) May 8, 2019