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Swan Street

Fire investigators determine Swan Street blaze 'incendiary,' investigation ongoing

By Howard B. Owens
46 swan street batavia
Photo of 46 Swan St., Batavia, taken Nov. 2 by Chuck Bernard.

Fire investigators with Batavia City Fire have concluded that Friday's blaze at the former Backhoe Joe's, 46 Swan St., was the blaze "ignited under circumstances when a fire should not be ignited," according to a press release.

The press release notes, "a fire declared incendiary does not indicate the crime of arson."

The investigation is being turned over to Batavia PD to determine if the fire was intentionally set or caused by some human action.

The building was without electrical or gas service.

Earlier today, the building's owner, Ron Viele, told The Batavian that there has been an issue with transients going into the building, perhaps lodging there.

"Probably what happened was a transient was in there who was trying to keep warm, and something stupid happened," Viele said.

See previously: Former Backhoe Joe's building nearly valueless, slated for demolition, wasn't insured owner says

Press release:

The City of Batavia Fire Department was dispatched to a reported working structure fire at 46 Swan St. in the City on Jan. 12, 2024, at approximately 12:11 p.m. Initial dispatch reported multiple calls of flames showing.

City Fire crews were clearing two separate EMS at the time of dispatch, and Squad 17 was the first initial unit on location. Squad 17 arrived at 12:14, reporting a 3-story wood frame structure fully involved. At that time, a second Alarm was called. Engine 12 arrived four minutes after initial dispatch and requested a third alarm.

Captain Robert Fix was the initial Incident Commander and declared defensive operations with total building collapse seven minutes after initial units arrived. City Fire Chief Joshua Graham arrived at 12:23 p.m. and assumed command of the incident.

Fire crews focused on protecting an exposed building to the south of the incident structure. Crews were initially hampered by a live power line that burnt through and fell onto a metal fence, preventing them from making entry to the rear on the incident structure.

Once the fire was knocked down, an excavator was called in from Yasses. Fire investigators worked with the excavator to slowly remove debris while working to determine a cause and origin.

City of Batavia Fire Investigators believe that the fire spread through ventilation holes. No utilities were operational to the structure in preparation of demolition.   Fire Investigators have ruled the fire incendiary. Incendiary fires are defined as fires ignited under circumstances when a fire should not be ignited. 

City Fire has completed its portion of the investigation. It is important to note that a fire declared incendiary does not indicate the crime of arson. City Police will continue to investigate.

There were no injuries as a result of this incident.

City Fire would like to thank City DPW, City Police, Genesee County Office of Emergency Management, Genesee County Dispatchers, the Town of Batavia, Elba, Stafford, Pavilion, and Oakfield Fire Departments, Mercy EMS, National Fuel, National Grid, and Salvation Army for their assistance and support.

46 swan street
Photo of 46 Swan St., Batavia, taken Nov. 2 by Chuck Bernard.

Former Backhoe Joe's building nearly valueless, slated for demolition, wasn't insured owner says

By Howard B. Owens
46 swan street
Chuck Bernard took this photo on Dec. 17, which shows 46 Swan St., Batavia, as it was being prepared for demolition.  Bernard noted that the orange object on the ground in the lower right is a sleeping bag. Owner Ron Viele said he was trying to keep transients out of the building.

It's been Ron Viele's intention for years to tear down the wood-framed structure at 46 Swan St., Batavia, once known as Backhoe Joe's, because it has been an eyesore on Swan that potentially devalues the rest of his property on the street.

Viele owns Viele Construction, which has an office at 61 Swan St.

"I want to make sure that street looks as good as possible," Viele told The Batavian.

He's aware of social media chatter that the fire was an "insurance fire," but it wasn't insured, he said.

"That building was not in good shape," Viele said. "It is adjacent to the railroad tracks. A former owner had taken everything out and people were coming in and taking wires and pipes, anything of value. I intended to take it down, and the building had no insurance on it."

Some years ago, he tried to buy the building, winning it at a tax lien auction for $8,000, but a former city manager felt his purchase of the building was a conflict of interest with Ron's son, Paul Viele, on City Council, so the property went to another buyer.  Then in 2018, it came up for auction again, and he and Dick Borrell teamed up to buy it for $1,800, he said. 

He bought the property with the intention of demolishing the building.

He said he owns about $800,000 worth of property on Swan Street. He wants to protect those investments.

The clean up -- after the fire -- will still cost him at least $40,000.  That may be at least $4,000 cheaper than the demolition would have cost, he said, because there is now less material to haul away.

He noted that electrical and water service had been shut off to the property for some time. 

"It was one of those buildings that could become a money pit," Viele said. "I could put six figures into it.  The return (on investment) wouldn't have been good enough to fix it."

Viele said he needed multiple permits from the city in order to proceed with demolition.  He recently got final approval and was ready to proceed, but the contractor he hired for the job was tied up, so demolition wouldn't have started for at least another two weeks.

That section of the street is zoned industrial, and the parcel is too narrow to build anything new on it because of setbacks required in the current zoning code, so once the building is cleared away, the lot will likely remain vacant.

While most people remember 46 Swan as Backhoe Joe's, it was a tavern for many decades under various names.  Those were once thriving businesses when there was still heavy manufacturing at the Harvester Center and Wiard Plow, but as employees drifted away from those industrial hubs, the bar and restaurant business on Swan Street dried up.

More recently, the building has been attractive to transients, Viele noted. He said just a week ago, he called the police to chase transients out of it, and he had asked Batavia PD to provide extra patrols in the area to keep transients away.  He put a fence around the entire property a few weeks ago to try and keep transients out of the building. 

Viele said a fire chief told him initial indications are that the fire started in the basement.

"Probably what happened was a transient was in there who was trying to keep warm, and something stupid happened," Viele said.

Fire Chief Josh Graham said that is possible, but investigators, which include investigators with Batavia PD, have not yet made a final determination on the cause and origin of the fire.

"No matter what happened, it's not a happy event," Viele said.


Photos: Workers remove loose bricks from facade of building on Swan Street

By Howard B. Owens

Workers were on Swan Street in Batavia today knocking away loose bricks from the facade of the old Wiard Plow factory office building. Property co-owner Todd Audsley said the goal was to remove loose bricks before high winds hit the area tonight.

Long-term, the owners are working on a restoration project for the building. The facade will eventually be restored to look as much like the original as possible.

There is a high-wind warning in place starting at midnight through 10 p.m., Saturday.

Winds of 35 to 40 mph are expected with gusts up to 70 mph.

Batavia man trapped under car rescued by local trio

By Howard B. Owens

Fast action by three people on Swan Street this evening saved a Batavia man from possible serious injury after a car he was working on slipped off a jack and trapped him.

The man, Dean Case, started yelling and two men nearby heard him as well as two boys.

The boys, Peter and Philip, ran to get their mom, Kim Koziol, who called 9-1-1. Jeremy Fitzsimmons and his friend Josh Fye, who was visiting from Darien, rushed to see what was going on.

They said all they could see was Case's legs sticking from under the car. Fitzsimmons ran to get a jack and Fye pushed the car from behind to keep it from rolling back further onto Case. Koziol then came with two wheel ramps and pushed them behind the rear tires to help hold the jacked-up vehicle in place.

Case, who was working on his transmission, stood up immediately after he was pulled from under the vehicle, and he was fully conscious. Fitzsimmons said his first words were, "Next time, I'm calling L&L."

A short time later, Officer John Zola and Batavia Fire personnel arrived on scene. Mercy EMS transported Chase to UMMC for evaluation.

Fitzsimmons and Fye demurred when asked if they were heroes. "We were just in the right place at the right time," Fye said.

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