Investigation Underway into Cause of Sunday Fire; Some Buildings May be Salvageable
With the acrid smell of smoke still hanging heavily in the midday air, fire investigators Monday walked in and out of the remains of Sunday’s apartment fire on Woodlawn Avenue looking for clues as to its origin, and determining the condition of what remains of the buildings.
“It’s a daunting task,” said Saratoga Police Lt. John Catone. “We have to put things together like a puzzle.”
Catone was talking about the difficulty in finding a cause for the blaze. The fire, which started in the rear basement of 108 Woodlawn and burned for more than eight hours, spread to five buildings in total. Multiple floors of 108 Woodlawn collapsed, burying the area where the fire began under piles of rubble. Now investigators must not only dig through all those bricks, pieces of charred wood and other detritus remaining from the fire; they must also identify each layer as it’s removed.
“You’ve got to go one layer at a time,” said Catone. “It’s a lot like Legos, having to put pieces back together.” One way they do that, he said, is through interviews with tenants. “We ask them what we should be looking for from their apartment. That way we can make sure the kitchen that looks like it’s from the first floor isn’t really from the third floor.”
Catone said it’s a painstaking process, and it is unlikely the investigators will be finished with their work at the buildings until at least Wednesday. But even when they leave the site their work will continue. They will be poring over any evidence they will have gathered, reviewing videos and pictures of the fire, and finishing any needed interviews of witnesses, all before deciding whether or not they can say definitively what caused the blaze. And it’s still possible, said Catone, that they may never find the cause.
Officials examining what remains of 108 Woodlawn on Monday afternoon
Because the investigators are still working, any demolition work needed because of the fire has been postponed. A crew with W.J. Morris Excavation has helped to stabilize what remains of the building at 108 Woodlawn. They removed a façade that was threatening to fall on 110 Woodlawn, and they knocked down a portion of a fire wall that was ready to collapse. But any real demolition, said Catone, will have to wait on the fire investigators.
Meanwhile, officials installed a chain link fence around the site Monday afternoon. The fence allows them to re-open Woodlawn Avenue to traffic while still protecting anyone passing by.
Workers preparing to install a portable chain link fence along Woodlawn Avenue
Despite the extensive damage caused by the fire, an investigator working for the building’s owner said several of the buildings are salvageable, a view echoed by a fireman at the scene. However, because neither was authorized to speak with the media they would not provide their names.
Catone meanwhile said he had not been involved in the examination of all the buildings, but that it does seem that some of the buildings may survive the wrecking ball. “I think 106 and 108 probably have to go. But 100, 102 and 104 where the roof collapsed, you can maybe repair things.”
Former residents Monday gathered what remained of their belongings along Woodlawn Avenue
Former tenants, meanwhile, continued to salvage what belongings they could. Many of those who lived on the lower floors in 100 and 102 Woodlawn were able to remove items under escort from Saratoga Springs firemen. Kathryn Bezanilla was one of them. She was working at the Tin and Lint on Caroline Street when the fire broke out, and she said she was dumbstruck when she heard the news. “This is my second fire in three years. I lost my apartment in the fire at 2 Franklin Square on March 9, 2010. So my landlord moved me here, and it happened again.”
Both of those fires occurred at apartments owned by Franklin Square Associates.
While Bezanilla lived in 102 Woodlawn, she was not one of the lucky ones who was able to recover most of their belongings. She said she was able to grab three winter coats and a bottle of wine. Then she remembered that her birth certificate was inside, so a fireman took her back up. The contents of a drawer that held her identification were all soaked, and her birth certificate was in several pieces.
All that remained of Kathryn Bezanilla's birth certificate, social security card and car registration
Donations for those who lived in the apartments and need help meanwhile are being accepted at the Assembly of God church on Woodlawn Avenue, at the Recreation Hall at Saratoga Race Course – located across Union Avenue from the main track – and at the Saratoga Springs Recreation Center, located on the city’s south side, where the American Red Cross has set up a temporary shelter for 16 people displaced by the fire.
The Saratoga Springs Recreation Center on the city’s south side where the American Red Cross has set up a temporary shelter for 16 people displaced by a weekend fire on Woodlawn Avenue
“We’ll be here as long as we need to be,” said Red Cross worker Edna Quesnel, who added that the preferred type of donations at the recreation center are basic toiletries, and things like men’s and women’s underwear and socks. The temporary shelter is expected to be sited at the recreation center at least until Wednesday and possibly longer.
Edna Quesnel organizing toothbrushes and other items Monday afternoon at the Saratoga Springs Recreation Center, where the American Red Cross has set up a temporary shelter for residents displaced by the Woodlawn Avenue fire
Money is being donated for the victims of the fire, and a fundraiser is being held next Monday night at 7pm at Putnam Den. Organizers ask that people wishing to attend check to see what is needed. But for now they are asking that no clothing or non-perishable donations be brought to the event.
Nine of the displaced residents are employed by the New York Racing Association and each was given a $500 gift card by NYRA to help address immediate and essential needs, said NYRA spokesman Eric Wing.
Gary Williams, who works year-round as a NYRA mutual clerk at Belmont, Aqueduct and Saratoga, said the landlords of the Woodlawn Avenue building where he lived have returned rental monies that residents paid for the week that they stayed there.
“I lost…everything, but everyone got out safe. That’s what matters. All the material things, you can replace, but you only have one life,” Williams said. The 46-year-old has been coming to Saratoga for 13 years and has lived at the Woodlawn Avenue complex the past four.
Shortly after the fire, residents of the apartment building began to call one another to ensure everyone was OK. Williams was one of two residents who could not be immediately reached. He was across town at the Saratoga Casino and Raceway and didn’t realize his phone was ringing.
“People were calling me and they were worried. They thought I was at the house, but I wasn’t getting a (phone) signal.” When he did make contact by phone, it was an unbelievable experience. “At first I thought they were joking; all of Woodlawn burned down? One woman said her car exploded. But, when we drove back, all you saw was this thick black smoke in the air.”
NYRA workers affected by the blaze were offered the option of going back downstate, but each decided to stay. New housing will have to be secured for the balance of the racing meet, but Williams said the group has bonded to one another emotionally. The trauma of the fire, “it can bend us, but it can’t break us,” he said.
Reporter Thomas Dimopoulos contributed to this story
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