Crews battle massive fire at old Bethlehem Steel site

Nov 9, 2016

Giant plumes of smoke can be seen for miles as crews battle a massive fire at the former Bethlehem Steel site. A cold storage building containing cars, boats and an assortment of recycling materials is engulfed in flames.

The building on fire is owned by Great Lakes Industrial Development, located in the Steel Works Industrial Park on the former Bethlehem Steel site on Route 5 in Lackawanna. In a statement released by the company, "the fire is known to have damaged space occupied by Industrial Materials Recycling (IMR), a post-industrial plastics recycler, which grinds discarded plastic products into granular plastic that is sold to manufacturers where the material is recycled into the manufacturing process.

IMR has been in business since 2012 and has over 15 employees in production at the site. IMR and Steel Works Industrial Park have a number of environmental requirements that they have routinely stayed in compliance with, including strict oversight from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation."

While the extent of the damage, as well as the cause of the fire have not been determined, only one injury has been reported. Buffalo Fire Commissioner Garnell Whitfield said one firefighter from city Engine 25 was taken to Erie County Medical Center with an ankle injury that is considered minor.

"Our immediate thoughts and focus are on the safety of everyone at and surrounding the site, as well as with the tenants whose businesses will be impacted by this devastating event," said Great Lakes Spokesperson Chris Wietig. "While we do not yet know the full extent of the damage, it is certain that some tenants and workers will be displaced as a result of the fire."

According to Great Lakes, "the fire was noticed at approximately 7 a.m., shortly after IMR held its daily safety inspection, walk-through and staff meeting, prior to commencing the day’s operations. Emergency crews were immediately notified and IMR staff and other tenants were evacuated. Other tenants at the facility include a mix of light manufacturing, logistics, storage and steel supply businesses."

Great Lakes said, contrary to some media reports, "there have not been previous fires (reported or unreported) at the facility, nor is the fire believed to have started in an adjacent storage facility. Great Lakes does not know the source or cause of the fire, but will cooperate with all responding entities while continuing its own investigation."

Officials expect the fire to burn throughout the day. Fire companies from Lackawanna, the City of Buffalo, Athol Springs and Hamburg are assisting, as well as federal, state and other local agencies, including the ATF, EPA, NYSDEC and Erie County Haz Mat Teams. Route 5 remains closed from Lake Road to Ridge Road and a "shelter in place" has been imposed for residents living  around the site, including in Lackawanna, Athol Springs and Hamburg.

Students in the Frontier Central School District have been relocated to various local school districts. Students from three schools were transported to other sites Wednesday as a precautionary evacuation. Students at Cloverbank Elementary were transported to Lake Shore High School, from Blasdel Elementary to Lake Shore Middle, and from Big Tree Elementary to Pinehurst Elementary.

Middle and high school students remained in their buildings when Hamburg issued a 'shelter in place.'

Schools Superintendent Bret Apthrope told WBFO students would be safe in those buildings.

"What we were advised is that the state fire marshal said that it was safer for our students to stay in our buildings because we had shut off the air handlers so that the kids had safe air in the schools," explained Apthrope.

Apthrope said there was no smell or taste from the heavy smoke.

"Our  kids have been with teachers all day. We've been encouraging parents to stay away because we don't want them in an unsafe situation. There kids are in a safe situation," stated Apthrope. "This visual imagery of this black, plume of smoke speaks to you that that's not good, but our kids are safe."

The latest information can be found on the school district's website

Erie County Emergency Management Deputy Commissioner Greg Butcher said all fire personnel have been pulled out of the fire-engulfed building, but are continuing to fight the blaze from outisde as a "defensive" fire. At one point crews were using a forklift to punch through a garage door to gain access to the interior of the building. 

Due to the contents of the warehouse, the nature of the fire continues to change. Different shades of smoke can be seen emanating from the warehouse. Fire crews are expecting winds to shift later today, possibly affecting additional neighborhoods. Butcher could not confirm materials such as asbestos in the building, speculated the possibility of its presence given the age of the building.

Authorities ask residents to call 911 only for emergencies. Face masks have been handed out to first responders at the scene and multiple agencies are monitoring air quality, as it continues to be a concern.

WBFO's Avery Schneider spent all day on the scene of the fire at the former Bethlehem Steel site. Listen and watch below to see how this story developed through live reports, press briefings with emergency services officials, and on-site videos.