Lawsuit over 2016 fire paints grim picture of death, disease and distress

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The fire by the former Bethlehem Steel plant raged on for nearly five days, leaving behind a path of destruction

The Nov. 9, 2016, fire burned for nearly five days at an industrial building by the former Bethlehem Steel facility in the City of Lackawanna, sending soot, chemicals, and thick, dark smoke over five blocks of residential neighborhoods.

An attorney describes the toll of the devastating fire in an Erie County Supreme Court lawsuit filed last week against the owner of the building and a recycling business that operated inside.

Jeanne M. Vinal, the attorney representing more than 30 people who lived near the industrial property, paints a grim picture of death, disease, and distress through short descriptions of some of her clients’ personal testimonies.

For example, the fire’s heat melted siding and roof shingles on homes. Soot and chemical film covered yards, homes, and vehicles. Carpet, flooring ,and furniture got destroyed.

Home values plummeted.

Family pets died or remain sick.

Worst of all, neighbors died from health problems that the lawsuit contends are linked to the fire and alleged negligence of the two defendants. Those health problems were either caused by or exacerbated by the fire’s smoke, soot and chemicals, the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit alleges that the owner the building, Great Lakes Industrial Development LLC and the tenant, Industrial Materials Recycling (IMR), are responsible by allegedly failing to inspect and maintain a fire suppression system and concealing the “dangerous condition.”

Officials with Great Lakes and IMR could not be reached for comment.

Fire officials never determined a cause of the fire, but some believed that a bulb from a lighting fixture became too hot and exploded, with pieces landing on and igniting nearby recyclable materials.

The Buffalo News first reported the lawsuit Tuesday and stated that the Lackawanna fire commissioner told the newspaper in 2016 that a sprinkler system was not required because the owner did not make any physical changes to the complex.  

What was then the most-recent inspection of the building, which has since been demolished, in 2014, the city’s part-time inspector approved the safety inspection report even though IMR had not yet begun operations inside the 1-million-square-foot Steel Works Industrial Park.

“N/A” or not applicable was written in the section for fire suppression systems.

The lack of any fire suppression helps explain how the fire raged so fast for so long, leaving behind a path of destruction described in the lawsuit.

For example, the lawsuit states that Earlene Wozniak, of Pine Street, died of throat cancer, which attorneys to some degree link to the alleged negligence of the defendants

She lived with Ashley Torres, who is the chief plaintiff, and her four children. One of Torres’ daughters died of brain cancer in February 2019, but the lawsuit stops short of placing blame on the fire or allege negligence by the defendants.

“Her home and yard were covered with smoke, fumes and soot inside and outside of the house and property,” Vinal, the attorney, said in the lawsuit.

Initially, authorities ordered a shelter in place, but as the fire raged on and the thick smoke turned darker, creating at times hazardous outdoor air conditions, people were urged to evacuate.

Torres evacuated at her own expense, and when she returned home, her newborn daughter coughed and choked up for the several hours they were there removing belongings. Her 7-year-old daughter cried the entire time in the house because the smoke and soot kept burning her eyes, nose and chest, the lawsuit contends

Torres, herself, suffered with wheezing, shortness of breath and heart palpitations, which the lawsuit argues were a result of the soot and chemicals left behind.

Furniture and toys inside the house sustained damage from the smoke and soot, the roof was ruined, and the house needed new front windows and doors and a fresh coat of paint.

Her home, valued at $110,000, sold for only $80,000 after the fire, the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit alleges that “as a result in whole or part of the defendants’ negligence,” LeRoy Kelley, of Salem Drive in Hamburg, suffered from respiratory failure and cardiac arrest

He died in June 2020, leaving behind his wife, whose asthma and auto-immune disorder became aggravated by the soot and chemicals that invaded their home, the lawsuit alleges.

The siding and roof of Clarence Yeager’s home on Spruce Street in Lackawanna had melted from the heat. Furniture got destroyed by black soot that was also discovered in the venting system. His grass no longer grows green, but yellow, and his dog, which was caked in black soot during the fire, has turned very sick, the lawsuit states.

Some people had to sell their homes for various reasons.

The lawsuit states that soot and chemicals from the fire had damaged the lungs of a man who lived on Elm Street and made his pre-existing conditions even worse. The infections and constant need for oxygen had rendered him incapable of cleaning and fixing the damage to his home.

Some people “could actually feel the heat” while they remained in their homes, the lawsuit states.

That happened to Julius Kovacs, of Walnut Street, who suffered from emphysema “and as a result of the fire that emphysema was aggravated.”

The air ducts inside his home sustained damage and his dog died, the lawsuit states.

State and federal environmental agencies did conduct air monitoring in neighborhoods downwind of the fire and smoke.

State data showed that at certain periods on Nov. 10 and Nov. 11, 2016, when the plume of the fire had passed over air monitors on Madison Avenue and Electric Avenue, concentrations of chemicals in the air did surpass the hazardous air quality index.

Environmental regulators did find elevated levels of hazardous chemicals including benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, styrene, naphthalene, and 1,3-butadiene.

Then-Mayor of Lackawanna, Geoff Szymanski, declared a State of Emergency in the city while the fire was still active.

“These levels were expected and are consistent with instructions that were issued by local first responders at the time to shelter in place, and later to evacuate, and limit exposure to the smoke,” the state Department of Environmental Conservation wrote in its analysis of the air monitoring data.

Hazardous air concentrations did fall back to baseline levels “and the state worked with the Lackawanna Mayor to lift the evacuation order and allow residents to return to their homes on Friday” Nov. 11, 2016, the DEC stated.

Szymanski told WIVB roughly a year after the fire that based off air quality test results, residents of Bethlehem Park do not need to worry about any long-term health risks.

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