Residents of a Cheektowaga neighborhood want to know why town officials failed to take action before a massive fire destroyed an abandoned garage and ravaged several nearby properties, Monday night.
Neighbors had been complaining to the town for years about the garage which had been vacant since at least 2014, because the property on Long Avenue had become a dumping ground for garbage, and what they believed to be hazardous material.
Two survivors of the inferno are now homeless, they were tenants of a two-story apartment house next to the garage that was severely damaged by the flames and fire hoses, and it is now boarded up.
If not for his trusty companion “Sampson”, Steven Wiltsie believes he would have died in the fast-spreading fire. Wiltsie was in a deep sleep and Sampson, a Lab mix, rousted Wiltsie with his loud barking.
“That is who saved my life. He woke me up, that is how I got out. He helped me crawl out because the smoke was so thick.”
But Wiltie’s upstairs neighbor Alexis Linck-Entwistle was not so lucky. She couldn’t save her cat “Katrinah”, and on Thursday afternoon, Alexis returned to the boarded up house on Long Avenue to lay flowers on her kitty’s grave in the backyard.
“She hates the carrier, all cats hate the carrier,” Linck-Entwistle recalled the cat fighting her as she tried to gather her kitty in her pet carrier. “I had her and then I was trying to call 911 and they were saying stay on the line.”
Both Alexis and Steven have lost just about everything, they are staying with friends, but Steven and some of his neighbors say it never should have come to this.
Folks in the neighborhood had been complaining for years about the garage, which had become a dumping ground for garbage, old propane tanks, vacuum cleaners, and other scrap.
Wiltsie said town officials could have shutdown the garage as a public health threat or fire hazard, “Because there would be kids in there, partying and carrying on. They never secured the building. It should have been at least boarded up or something.”
By the time time the fire was brought under control, the garage on Long Avenue and a neighboring garage were flattened, a third garage suffered superficial damage, the two-story apartment house was severely damaged, and a second house on the other side of the garage had heat damage.
Long Avenue resident Edward Nastaga said, when neighbors complained about the garage, town officials would come and write the property up for code violations, but he believes they could have done more.
“It was just an eyesore that needed to go for a long time and they just never did anything about it.”
Neighbors said the owner of the vacant garage died years ago, and ownership was passed on to his estate, which might have created the biggest obstacle to removing that neighborhood hazard.
A town official told us, the garage was an “estate held property”, and even though there were code violations going back more than a year, there was little else the town could do until officials could locate a representative for the estate.