SARAH GAGER: This is WSKG News. On Sunday afternoon, a fire in Hornell destroyed five homes and damaged three others. Neal Simon reported on the incident for the Spectator in Hornell and he joins us today to share what he knows. Neal, thanks so much for being with us.
NEAL SIMON: Thank you for having me.
SG: So, let’s start with who was affected. Was anyone harmed?
NS: Remarkably for how fast the fire spread—Fire Chief Frank Brzozowski said that, when he pulled up to the scene, two houses were orange—there were no serious injuries to people. One firefighter and another person received medical attention at the scene. There were a number of pets that were lost in the fires, but, at this time, it’s not known exactly how many.
SG: How many people were displaced? Do you know where they are now?
NS: Several of the houses that went up were duplex apartments. So there were 23 people displaced, and that includes nine children. The children are students, Pre-K through 10, in the Hornell City School District.
Even as the fire was still going on, emergency shelter was set up at Hornell High School, and donations began pouring in. The city is working with landlords and other agencies, and, of course, the Red Cross also stepped in within hours—also before the fire was out—to find some temporary homes and residences for them stay in while long-term solutions are worked out.
SG: What is the extent of the damages?
NS: I tell ya, it’s almost impossible to describe. Most of an entire block was just reduced to rubble. You have to understand that these house they were built during Hornell’s boomtown era, during the railroad era, about a hundred years ago, and they were not up to modern code. These houses were literally spaced an arms length apart, so flames leaped from one house to another in seconds.
Preston Avenue sits along the Canacadea Creek and the City of Hornell, and the creek is held back by a large, concrete barrier, which as it turned out made the fire even worse. The concrete contained the heat of the fire and the fire chief said it almost created a convection oven effect. Embers were propelled by Sunday’s winds, which is why the fire spread to Washington Street, the backyard so-to-speak of Preston Avenue homes. The heat was so intense that firefighters gear was compromised. The Spectator actually has photos of taillights on fire rigs actually melting.
The five homes on Preston—five residences were destroyed. On Washington Street, the three houses that sustained the most damage are considered savable though.
SG: There was a press conference Monday. Who spoke? What was the general sentiment?
NS: It was a collection of city officials, also the city school district superintendent, but Mayor John Buckley, Police Chief Ted Murray, and Fire Chief Brzozowski spoke. Mayor Buckley called it a miracle that everyone escaped without serious injury and I think that was really the sentiment throughout the press conference.
Thanking volunteers, thanking the firefighters in Hornell, the police department—which literally, as the fire was breaking out and knowing that it could spread to neighboring houses, which in fact it did, knocking on doors and, in some cases, literally knocking down doors to make sure that, if anyone was inside, that they were rushed out to safety.
So those sorts of stories were told at the press conference.
SG: There’s an open investigation into what caused the fire and I’m guessing into what caused it to spread as rapidly as it did. Do we know anything yet?
NS: I’ll tell ya, due to the devastation of the fire, the fire chief said that it will take some time to determine a cause. The police department is interviewing survivors and checking 911 calls. Chief Murray told me last night that they’ve gotten a few photographs of just when the fire began, before it had spread, which isolated what house they think it began in. Investigators to start off had to delay looking at the rubble because of the extreme heat, and the unsafe nature of the remaining structures, but that investigation is underway.
SG: And do we know when—uh, any indication on when we’ll have answers?
NS: The fire chief said it could take a week, it could take more, and, ominously, he said that sometimes causes are never determined.
SG: Wow. Yeah. Well we’ll look forward to your reporting on this incident. Thanks so much for sharing what you know so far.
Neal Simon joining us to discuss a fire in Hornell that displaced several homes. You can read Neal’s reporting on this and other topics for The Spectator online at EveningTribune.com.