Vinyl Works fire investigation underway

Vinyl Works fire investigation underway
By Dave Johnson
Welland Tribune
Link to article: Vinyl Works fire investigation underway

Multiple fire services from across Niagara Region provided mutual aid to Port Colborne Fire and Emergency Services as it battled a massive fire at Vinyl Works Canada on Barber Drive in Port Colborne Tuesday morning. The fire destroyed the plant and all seven employees safely escaped without injury. An investigator from the Ontario Fire Marshal office was on scene Wednesday. Dave Johnson/Welland Tribune

An investigation into the fire that destroyed Vinyl Works Canada Tuesday is underway

At a news conference in the city’s fire hall, Port Colborne Fire and Emergency Services Deputy Chief Mike Bendia Wednesday afternoon said an Ontario Fire Marshal’s Office investigator was on site and would make a determination as to the cause of the blaze for which smoke was visible as far east as Buffalo, N.Y.

He pegged at the damage at more than $1 million, but said the fire service doesn’t have a full accounting of what was inside the building, adding it has heard there were boats and cars being stored over winter inside as well.

“It’s a total loss,” Bendia said, adding the fire does not appear to be suspicious in nature.

While he hadn’t had a chance to speak to workers or the owner of Vinyl Works, Bendia said police have interviewed them.

The fire at Vinyl Works — the company makes patio furniture and above-ground pool and spa accessories — was noticed about 7:39 a.m. by employees who were opening up the shop for the day. All seven employees safely escaped without injury.

Port Colborne firefighters started a defensive attack almost right away due to the intensity of the fire. The conditions caused a partial building collapse just 10 minutes into fighting the fire, making firefighters move their operations back farther from the building set on the east bank of the Welland Canal north of Lock 8.

As the fire progressed throughout the structure, from south to north, walls on both sides started to collapse. The whole building was down to the ground within 40 minutes of the call, making it more difficult to battle the blaze, Bendia said Tuesday.

More than 50 firefighters with tankers and pumpers from across Niagara responded to the blaze after Port Colborne called on mutual aid to battle the inferno at 2174 Barber Dr. at Ramey’s Bend.

Welland Fire and Emergency Services, Fort Erie Fire Department, Wainfleet Fire and Emergency Services, Thorold Fire and Emergency Services, Pelham Fire Department and Niagara Falls Fire Department all sent manpower, tankers and pumpers to the scene. There were also numerous fire chiefs and deputy fire chiefs on scene, as well as regional fire co-ordinator Bob Lymburner, chief of Pelham’s fire service.

“Almost every fire department in the region provided us with something. Welland was on scene very quickly with its aerial (truck), tanker and manpower. Chief (Brian) Kennedy and Deputy Chief (Adam) Eckhart were with us well into the night, making sure we had whatever we needed,” said Bendia, who was on scene until 5:30 a.m. Wednesday.

He said it was incredible how fast the services responded to the city Tuesday morning.

Port Colborne Chief Tom Cartwright — he was 2,400 kilometres away on the last day of his vacation in Cuba at the time of the fire — said fire services rallied around Port Colborne.

“That speaks well for the fire services in the Niagara region. There were a lot of people here in upper management, a lot of chiefs, who offered Mike all the assistance he needed in regard to anything he needed,” said Cartwright, also thanking Niagara Regional Police who guarded the fire scene overnight.

In an interview Wednesday morning, Port Colborne fire prevention officer Scott Lawson said the other municipalities with their manpower and equipment were a huge help: “God bless them.”

Welland firefighters stayed at the scene with a tanker right up to Wednesday morning, and Lawson said Wainfleet and Fort Erie firefighters were manning the fire hall throughout the day and into the evening, responding to calls throughout the city.

“We had a bunch of remote alarms and other things. It was good that our neighbours backed us up.”

Wainfleet sent more manpower to the scene late Tuesday night, as did Welland, which also sent an additional pumper truck.

That extra manpower, Lawson said, was also used to assist Port Colborne firefighters, many of whom had been on scene for 12 to 16 hours, roll up and clean firehoses.

“The amount of hose we had out there, it’s a mankiller to roll all of that up. We were just trying to get everything cleaned up and back in service. We are capable of responding,” he said.

Bendia said firefighters started to encounter problems at about 1 a.m. Wednesday when the temperature dropped at least six degrees Celsius.

“My truck said it was –18C … the temperature dropped very quickly. Our hoses were so frozen, water wouldn’t go through them,” Bendia said, adding equipment was pulled from the scene so that it wouldn’t be damaged and to be given a chance to thaw out.

Lawson said the cold conditions were tough on firefighters, with ice forming at the scene and by a fire hydrant at the fire hall on Killaly Street West, some 2.5 kilometres from the fire scene.

City works crews were constantly sanding both the scene and at the fire hall to ensure no one fell on the ice. Lawson said they assisted firefighters in whatever they needed.

“The cold makes working a lot tougher on everyone, but everyone did their job,” he said.

The fire crews on scene worked all night to extinguish hot spots, but Lawson said the building was still smouldering in different areas early Wednesday and that heavy machinery was ready to take what was left standing of it down.

“There are no flames,” said Lawson, who was at the scene early Wednesday morning.

Those smouldering spots were producing smoke that was drifting across the west side of the city after the wind switched direction Tuesday night. On Tuesday, the smoke plume, which showed up on weather radar, stretched as far east as Fort Erie.

Lawson said there were a few calls from residents reporting the smell of smoke in the Barrick Road and Elm Street area of the city.

“The calls petered off around midnight. I think everyone knew what it was, but they were concerned, and rightfully so,” he said, adding the Ministry of Environment had been testing the air quality throughout Tuesday.

A release from the city advised residents that if they had smoke in their area they should continue to stay indoors with doors and windows closed. It also said the ministry would be back Wednesday to continue to monitor air quality.

Bendia backed that up at the press conference. He said the ministry started testing the air Tuesday afternoon about six kilometres east of the fire, moving back toward the scene over a period of four to five hours.

“Everything came in within acceptable levels.”

The ministry also monitored and tested water runoff from the fire scene that moved toward the Welland Canal. Firefighters created a berm and had a large ditch that kept anything from going into the water. Vacuum trucks were called in late Tuesday night to remove that and any other potentially contaminated water from the scene.

Lawson said city hall, through corporate communications officer Michelle Cuthbert, was a big help in getting information out to residents and the media. News agencies from Hamilton, Toronto and Buffalo were requesting updates throughout the incident.

Wednesday morning, Cartwright said when he returned to Canada he had 174 emails and more than a dozen voicemails on his phone about the fire. He had seen photos of it on Facebook before he left Cuba.

“Obviously your mind starts thinking, but I wasn’t going to call in, they had enough to do, and what was I going to do from Cuba?” the chief said.

He said what went through his mind were things like environmental issues, did people need to evacuate because of the smoke, and were evacuation centres set up.

“It all went through my brain, but I was thousands of miles away.”

Cartwright said he trusted in Bendia, Lawson and the city’s firefighters doing what needed to be done.

“If they can’t operate without me, then I haven’t done a very good job at getting us to that point,” he said.

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