TONAWANDA, N.Y. — As soon as the call went out, city of Tonawanda Fire Chief Charles Stuart knew something was off.
"I monitored from the radio and spoke to our person who went and it was unusual,” he said. “There were some things going on there that I don't think they wanted us to know about," said Stuart.
In fact, local officials said first responders were blocked from entering Tonawanda Coke's property Monday night after they were called for a working structure fire there.
"The guard told the fire chief to wait for a manager. The fire chief had no ability at that time to enter the site. By the time they came with the manager, a high lift was actually driven in front of the chief's vehicle, to block his ability and other first responders' ability to the site," said Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz.
Stuart added, "Legally, we have access to anywhere where there's an active fire burning. That's the law."
Poloncarz says interfering with fire operations is a Class A misdemeanor.
"Our emergency service personnel has been in touch with the Tonawanda Police Department to determine if charges should be lodged with individuals with Tonawanda Coke, including the company itself," said Poloncarz
Tonawanda Mayor Rick Davis added, "Every time I hear about something happening there, I think what's next. What's going to be the tipping point that's going to say that's enough? If it was you and I, I don't think we'd still be in business, so it begs the question, why are they?"
National Grid says a bird came into contact with a part of Tonawanda Coke's substation, causing a power outage.
Tonawanda Coke put out a statement early Tuesday morning saying they instituted a controlled burn based on their standard operating procedures.
“The fire department, while appreciated, responded to inaccurate calls of a structure fire hampering personnel from their procedures and prevented additional management crews from gaining access to the facility to assess the situation. A Fire Chiefs SUV and Town of Tonawanda Inspector were escorted onto the property and observed Tonawanda Coke personnel execute their standard operating procedures and then exited the facility as operations returned to normal," the company said.
"I'm not an expert in fire safety, but let me say this to you, if Tonawanda Coke puts out a statement saying it's a controlled fire, and fire officials question that assertion, people who have experience with these kinds of things, and they're block access, I think that's a very grave violation of public trust," said Rep. Brian Higgins.
Higgins is one of several local officials calling on Tonawanda Coke to close, citing enviromental health and safety concerns. Representatives from the company were in federal court Tuesday, as a judge wanted additional information on the company's practices.
Davis said when other businesses do controlled burns, they call him to let him know what's going on and also speak with the fire department so they can be on standby should something go wrong. He says Tonwanda Coke issued no such notice to any of the area's municipalities Monday night.