Following is the detail of a brief report prepared for Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz by personnel from the Erie County Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Services (“ECDHSES”) regarding last night’s incident at the Tonawanda Coke plant in the Town of Tonawanda. The contents of the report are based on discussions ECDHSES personnel have had with emergency responders who were on the scene of the incident and other personnel who were involved in the matter but were not on the scene. The contents of the report conflict with published reports in which Tonawanda Coke’s representative stated yesterday’s event was a “controlled burn.”
It appears that at some time near 9 pm Tonawanda Coke lost power. The power loss affected the control of the dampers on the Coke ovens. Without the ability to control the dampers the fire grew with the excess gasses.
The fire quickly grew outside of the coke ovens due to the gas buildup. When a nearby fire department (Sheridan Park) saw the large glow from their Fire Station, the chief went to investigate. The Fire Chief was stopped at the guard gate and was asked by the guard what he was doing there. He explained to the guard that they could see the glow from the large fire at their fire station and many calls were coming in about concerns over the visible fire. The guard told him to wait for a manager, when a high lift was driven and parked in from of his Chief’s vehicle to block his ability to enter the property to determine the extent of the fire.
The Tonawanda Fire Departments were eventually granted access and at some point a plant employee arrived that had the ability to run the onsite generator arrived. Once the generator was started the dampers were closed and the fire became under control. There was no structural damage to the facility.
ECDHSES will continue to update County Executive Poloncarz as more information becomes available, including whether any criminal charges could be logged against Tonawanda Coke or its employees under New York Penal Law § 195.15 for “Obstructing firefighting operations.”