Huge Johnstown fire was started accidentally

A fire that consumed four old multistory mill buildings on West State Street Thursday and spewed bur
A Frontier Communications worker looks over the aftermath of Thursday’s fire along West State Street in Johnstown on Friday.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
A Frontier Communications worker looks over the aftermath of Thursday’s fire along West State Street in Johnstown on Friday.

A fire that consumed four old multistory mill buildings on West State Street Thursday and spewed burning embers that started another dozen fires in the neighborhood was officially ruled accidental on Friday.

Fire Chief Bruce Heberer said the contractors who started the fire won’t be charged with a crime.

“It took right off. They had to run for their lives,” Heberer said of the two workers.

Nate Clark of Land Escapes and another worker were using a metal demolition saw to salvage metal in the old Gordon Finishing building “and sparks from that caused the fire,” Heberer said.

Initial reports indicated the two were using a torch, which was incorrect. “But it was the same theory,” Heberer said.

Nathan Auty, who owns Land Escapes, said Friday that he was not at the scene when the fire started because he was estimating another job.

“The demolition saw throws a lot of sparks around. We’ve been doing this for six months now, working for the city. We’ve had some small fires, we just hit them with the fire extinguisher,” he said.

This time the sparks hit some finishing material and plastic, and in less than a minute the flames were licking the ceiling, Auty said.

“At that point he just picked up the tools and got out of there, which I think was the smart thing to do. There’s no need to be a hero in an old, dilapidated building,” he said.

Firefighters never had a chance to save the structures. They said the heat was so intense, when they poured water on the top it turned to steam.

“When we got there, Gordon was fully involved from the first floor to the roof and from the front to the back. It had already spread to the Arrow Leather building,” Heberer said.

The owner of the buildings, Jerry Kuziw of Towaco, N.J., was apparently not insured. Auty said his business is insured and there will likely be a claim filed.

Heberer said transformers were making bubbling noises and wires overhead were crackling before the utility crews used a remote device to cut power.

National Grid spokesman Patrick Stella said power was cut off to about 600 customers for 15 to 20 minutes. About 30 customers had to wait longer for power to be restored with the last coming back on line shortly before 9 p.m., he said. The fire started about 10 a.m.

Bill Mullady, the utility’s superintendent of transmission and distribution for the region, said crews made temporary repairs to restore people’s power quickly.

Then, overnight Thursday, crews worked to take down eight to 10 sections of wire that will have to be replaced. They also removed transformers and will make repairs at a later date when the scene is cleaned up.

The idea, Mullady said, is to stay out of the way of the cleanup effort.

Engineers visited Friday and have developed repair plans, he said. National Grid crews from Gloversville and Northville handled the work.

Fire officials credited state police with assisting in the firefighting. A state police helicopter flew just higher than treetop level over the blaze. The helicopter is equipped with a thermal-imaging device, which allowed fire officials to identify and concentrate on hot spots in the mill wreckage and also detect fires at other locations caused by burning embers.

Categories: Schenectady County

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