What happened at the Bethlehem Steel Site

LACKAWANNA — The Hilbert College community awoke to thick plumes of black smoke in the sky last Wednesday, coming from a massive fire at a building that was part of the Bethlehem Steel complex on Route Five.

The fire started early Wednesday morning Nov. 9, according to officials and witnesses who live in the neighborhood surrounding the building.

The building was a storage space for what was described as “recyclable materials,” as well as cars and boats.

No cause of the fire has been determined, but officials were still investigating.

“People were in the building at the time but no one is known to have been harmed. There is no official cause to the incident and the arson unit will do their investigation,” said Lackawanna Mayor Geoffrey Szymanski, who was at the scene of the fire last Wednesday, talking with emergency responders and residents who came by to look at the blaze.

Jesse Susi, a resident of Beech Street, a small side street that backs up to the huge structure, reported hearing a loud, explosive bang early Wednesday morning. He said he used to work inside the building several years ago.

“My old job just  burned down, I’ve never seen anything like this before,” he said. Susi lives a block away, upwind from the site, and said that he felt comfortable and safe, despite being so close to the flames.

A helicopter operated by the Erie County Sheriff’s Department hovered over the site and took video images. Route Five was closed in both directions near the site for several days, until demolition crews were able to demolish what was left of the building. News reports said there was a fear that the building would collapse and spill debris onto the roadway.

Last Wednesday, many people stood and watched responders from Lackawanna, Buffalo, and several other nearby agencies blast the fire with water cannons.

There was some concern raised by Szymanski and other officials about air quality, from the smoke plume. Szymanski told a local TV station that Lackawanna would be purchasing its own air monitoring equipment to check for harmful contamination in the coming weeks.

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