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Old factory of one of Batavia's most historic businesses partially destroyed in fire

By Howard B. Owens

There was nothing Tom Mancuso could do but watch.

Mancuso, donning a New York Yankees ball cap, and wearing a gaunt, dour expression in the unseasonably cold night, stood for hours just watching as firefighters tried to beat back the hungry red and blue flames devouring his building, the old Wiard Plow factory that his firm acquired in the 1980s.

Through the battle, Mancuso rarely turned away. He just watched.

"You can always build another 100,000-square-foot building," Mancuso said at one point. "You can never replace a 100-year-old building."

An Alarm of Fire
Just before sunset Saturday, Genesee County Dispatch started to get calls of a fire at 33 Swan St. -- the same location where a smaller fire had been extinguished by the Batavia Fire Department earlier Saturday.

On a day when the dispatch center dealt with hundreds and hundreds of calls, the switch board lighting up just fit the pattern.

But this time, this was no "possible" structure fire. Witnesses -- and there were several -- reported seeing heavy smoke.

By the time the Batavia Fire Department was on scene, flames were already showing.

The call quickly went out for mutual-aid departments to respond -- from Le Roy, Stafford, Town of Batavia and several others.

By 8:15 p.m., big balls of flame were shooting from the back of the historic structure.

Among the witnesses to the initial smoke was a reader of The Batavian, who told us he saw two youths running from the building. He said that later those same two youngsters were being questioned by police.

A little after 11 p.m., The Batavian confirmed Batavia Police detectives Todd Crossett and Kevin Czora were at the police station talking with two juveniles. Their parents had also been called to the station.

Earlier in the day, the Batavia Fire Department responded to a report of smoke coming from the rear side of the same Wiard Plow building.

Two youths reported the fire, saying they were walking in the area when they spotted the smoke. Lt. James Steinbrenner said Batavia Police questioned the youths who reported the fire and determined they were in fact just witnesses and not involved in the possible arson.

The fire, according to Steinbrenner, appeared deliberately set. There were papers spread around the floor of an abandoned office space that had been ignited. The arrangement of the paper suggested it was sometimes used as bedding.

An electrical cause could be ruled out because the building had no utilities service.

People could gain access to the space where the fire was found through a collapsed wall in an inner courtyard-like area. There was evidence that somebody had used a pallet to construct a makeshift ladder to gain easy access from the courtyard down into the office area.

Four burned birthday candles sat on a table in a room adjacent to the office were the earlier fire was discovered.

That fire was completely extinguished by BFD before it had a chance to spread beyond the office.

This evening's fire, according to Steinbrenner, may have started several yards to the south of the earlier fire, but within the same group of rooms in the building.

Fire Protection
Mancuso was clearly concerned about access to his building. He said work crews just within the past couple of weeks had welded shut doors that vandals had been using to gain access by breaking locks. There was also a 10-foot-high chain-link fence that was supposed to prevent people from entering the courtyard area.

"It was secured from the casual person entering," Mancuso said.

Several fire companies from Genesee County responded to the blaze, including Le Roy, which over the previous six or seven hours had responded to 15 calls in its own district -- mostly trees and power lines down.

Batavia's interim fire chief, Craig Williams, said the first order of business was firefighter safety.

"It’s a vacant building, so our first priority is making sure our guys stay safe, so we weren’t going to enter the building," Williams said.

Firefighters formed a perimeter around the building, striking it with several streams of water -- including three aerial (or ladder) trucks.

One Batavia firefighter said Le Roy's ladder truck crew deserved special credit for attacking the fire from the front of the building and keeping the flames from spreading beyond the firewall.

“There were breeches in the firewall, because of construction and renovations over the years, but we dumped a lot of water on it," Williams said. "Between the firewall and our efforts it looks like we pretty much got it stopped at the firewall.”

All evening, temperatures were at or below freezing, and snow flurries occasionally blew through the scene.

Firefighters were universally thankful for the cold and damp weather. With the high winds of Saturday evening, the fire could have quickly and easily spread if not for the recent rains. The entire Harvester complex could have been lost. Winds of 30 to 40 mph were carrying embers directly over the old factory buildings.

Town of Batavia Fire was assigned early in the incident, Williams said, to watch over the Harvester buildings.

Shortly before 11 p.m., heavy-duty wrecking equipment was brought in to start knocking down bricks and mortar that were first set in the 1870s.

By knocking down the ancient walls, the remains of the fire could be more quickly extinguished.

By about 1 a.m., Sunday, most of the fire units who had responded were back in service.

Updated at 11:30 a.m., Sunday, to include information about weather conditions and potential damage to the Harvester complex.

Previous coverage:

Gary Spencer

Not to be a jerk, and I am not accusing anybody of any wrong doing, but wasn't Mr. Mancuso going to demolish this building for the Masse Mall revitalization project anyway?

It was a 100 year old building, but it had fallen into disrepair and sitting there falling apart, so now it will be demolished and can make way for something new.

May 9, 2010, 7:35am Permalink
Howard B. Owens

Gary, no he wasn't. The Masse Gateway buildings that will come down are at the end of Masse Place, at least 100 yards from this location. That project is intended to open up an attractive entry making it more economically viable to restore and put to productive use the other buildings in the project, including this one.

Whether the building was in too bad of disrepair to be salvaged is perhaps debatable. The damage I saw earlier in the day, and you can see it from my photos when I was inside, didn't look hopeful.

But I love these old buildings and would like to see them saved and restored. These buildings are both Batavia's history and can play a vital role in a more prosperous future.

When I spoke with Tom along these lines, besides saying what he said above, he first said, "Howard, I invested a lot of money in these buildings."

But it's clear to me that to him it's more than money. The Harvester buildings themselves are his family's legacy (his father and grandfather actually worked on the construction of the Masse buildings that will come down). These buildings are an extension of that. My impression is he had hope for this structure.

It was a great job by the firefighters to save what they did.

May 9, 2010, 8:37am Permalink
Gary Spencer

Thank you for the clarification Howard. Like I said, I wasn't trying to be a jerk or accuse anybody of doing this on purpose. I, too, love the old buildings in Batavia, and would love to see them saved and reused. It saddens me that there is little industry in Batavia compared to years past.

Good luck to Mr. Mancuso in his endeavors to rebuild, and GOD BLESS the fire dept. for such great work last night.

May 9, 2010, 3:22pm Permalink
Bryant Tyson

I'll be the jerk.
Welding doors shut! Thank God no one was trapped inside. The city has spent so much time going after home owners on there up keep. They turn a blind eye to the real death traps in the city.

May 9, 2010, 10:09pm Permalink
Howard B. Owens

What, he's suppose to just let people come and go through the buildings as they please?

What if somebody got trapped inside -- he or she would be trespassing. How much sympathy are we supposed to have for somebody who is knowingly breaking the law?

The city has also gone after commercial properties -- Latina's and Della Penna, for example -- that openly violate codes. As far as I know, this building was not out of code -- whatever was going on inside would not apply, because the building wasn't occupied.

May 9, 2010, 10:04pm Permalink
Bryant Tyson

Doors can be locked from outside and still let a person leave that would be with in fire code. It realy don't matter much when the walls have crumbled and left the building open. How about the roof on the next building over that looks like it meets city code also.

May 9, 2010, 10:27pm Permalink
Howard B. Owens

Vandals kept breaking the locks. We reported this. Locks are no good if they're broken.

There is technically no excuse for anybody to be inside of those buildings, so welding them shut is a perfectly logical thing to do when people keep breaking the locks.

There was a 10-foot high chain link fence attempting to block access to the interior area of the complex.

Obviously, the security measures were circumvented, but that's the fault of the trespassers who BROKE THE LAW to enter the facility.

May 9, 2010, 10:52pm Permalink
Bryant Tyson

I do understand your point and I did read that information. You also reported they did not go into the building to fight the fire. That being a very smart move a firefighter could of just as easly been trapped behind a welded shut door.

May 10, 2010, 8:48am Permalink

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