Thursday, May 29, 2008

Saranac Brewery Fire

As if the hops crisis, the malt shortage and the constantly rising price of gas weren't enough of a burden on beer lovers, a fire has reportedly broken out at the F.X. Matt Brewery. And it doesn't look good. The phrase "total loss" has been mentioned by fire officials and brewery president Fred Matt has already expressed that the historic brewery will be rebuilt, should it come to that. I know what kind of beer I'll be picking up this weekend.

From the Utica Observer Dispatch:

Utica - City public safety officials are telling everyone to stay as far away from Varick Street as possible while firefighters battle a toxic fire at the Matt F. X. Brewing Company.

The fire began shortly after the start of this summer's first Saranac Thursday as flames erupted from the portion of the brewery right behind the music concert stage.

Utica police Officer Shannon Acquviva said Varick Street is being closed by orders of the fire chief. Officials are urging residents to get out of the street and have blocked off either end to traffic.

A Toxic blaze
Utica Public Safety Commissioner Daniel LaBella said the fire is ammonia-based, and the four to five blocks around the brewery are being evacuated.

"It's toxic. We're worried about the shift in the wind. If it comes over here, there's people over here," LaBella said about the residents gathered outside.

“This is a bad one,” LaBella said from the scene.

All of Varick Street has been evacuated, and LaBella described the circumstances as an “emergency situation.” He also encouraged everyone to not inhale the smoke.

“People, this is toxic smoke, please, please go back to the light,” LaBella shouted to some bystanders near Varick Street. “This is toxic smoke.”

Duane Evans, assistant chief with the Whitesboro Fire Department, described the fire as a “massive stream situation.” This means they are trying to drown the fire with as much water as possible.

At least four hoses up on ladders shooting at the building. Evans said the fire seems to be contained to that building. However, the building has noticeable cracks and firefighters are worried about collapse, so no personnel are inside.

“It’s going to take a lot of water to put this out, ” Evans said.

Large chunks of ash and debris are coming down across the city from the large plume of smoke coming from the brewery fire on Court Street. The plume is being blown by a wind out of the west.

Police continue to evacuate because of concerns of hazards materials and smoke inhalation.

Unconfirmed injuries
There are two unconfirmed reports of injuries sustained by Saranac employees, according to Utica Fire Chief Raymond Beck.

Beck said there was no one else in the building.

There is going to be a media briefing at the command post around 7:30 tonight.

Brewery officials react
Meghan Fraser, marketing coordinator for the brewery said they had done a head count and all of their employees were accounted for.

The fire is in a building on the Saranac compound that relates to processing and the canning line, said Meghan Fraser, marketing coordinator for the brewery.

The alarm went off at about 4:45 p.m., she said. They initially called it in as a smaller fire and then it grew.

One aspect of this is that there is a lot of smoke that relates to packaging and to plastic, Fraser said. Fraser said everybody had been evacuated in the brewery.

Two employees had smoke inhalation issues but they had managed to evacuate everybody, said Fred Matt, vice president of F.X. Matt Brewery.

The fire could severely impact brewery operations because the building houses their can operations, Matt said. Asked about what the fate of Saranac Thursday will be, he said he anticipated the party would come back, possibly next week.

Local politicians react
State Sen. Joseph Griffo, R-Rome, also reached out to LaBella and he is in the process of getting extra emergency help for the city's firefighters.

Common Councilman Jim Zecca, D-2, represents West Utica, and said he was assisting with the evacuation.

Zecca was going door to door on Huntington Street with paramedics to see if anyone was having any health problems and to encourage people to seal their homes.

“It’s pretty smoky down here,” Zecca said. “I just want to make sure everybody is safe.”

Zecca said he has been told the gym at Kernan Elementary School on York Street is being prepared as a shelter if any areas of West Utica need to be evacuated.

Zecca has also talked with the Matt family and expressed concern about what this blaze means for the future of the brewing facility and Saranac Thursday.

“The brewery is the cornerstone of West Utica and the city, and this is a disaster for the community,” Zecca said. “It’s a beautiful facility, and it looks like it’s going to be a total loss, from what I can see. I hope they’re going to rebuild and move on from this. I’m wishing them well.”

Still, Zecca said he was impressed that police and fire officials seem to have the situation “pretty well under control.”

“Nobody’s getting panic-stricken, and the police and fire department are doing excellent jobs,” Zecca said. “I’m very proud of everybody that’s been pulling together and other elected officials. The fire is just outrageous.”

The band in the middle

Mike Santalucia from the band The Bomb said they were in the middle of the third song when they noticed smoke behind them.

Brewey officials at first told them it was a small fire and to keep playing. But then a law enforcement official came on stage and said everyone should leave.

Santalucia said he was concerned about $80,000 of equipment and was trying to get some of it off the stage.

Jennifer Crossway ust moved to Utica from Florida and was at Saranac for the first time. Her brother, Jim, is a guitarist for band, and was on the stage at the time of the fire.

“All I can think is that my brother won’t leave his equipment and he won’t leave his phone,” she said.

Residents react
Traffic on the streets around the brewery is deadlocked and people are standing in their yards and on nearby streets watching the smoke.

77-year-old Beverly Eddy lives on Hamilton Street and was standing on Columbia Street in front of the Polish Community Home.

"They came and told me I had to get out for two hours because of the smoke," she said. "I could smell it. I was starting to choke in the house, and all the windows were shut, too."

Kevin Hight of Ilion has come to Saranac Thursdays for the past few years.

He said he came around 5 p.m. with a few friends.

“The flames were peeking out over the roof,” he said. “My first thought was that it was a nearby building, but at that point, everything happened quickly.”

Sherri Harris-Dame was one of the more optimistic ones.

“I’m hoping they get that under control and reopen the bars so that people can enjoy themselves,” She said.

Edward Street resident Don Stockbridge, 41, said Utica police told him he had to leave his home because of the fire at F.X. Matt Brewing Co.

“My doors are open and everything,” he said. “I grabbed my wife, kids and the dog, put them in the car and told them to hightail it.”

When asked why Stockbridge himself didn’t evacuate, he replied, “Because I live here. I’ve got a lot of stuff in that house.”

Stockbridge was standing on Columbia Street, a few blocks from his home, where he’s lived for the past 17 years.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he said.

Carleen Gilot, coordinator of social recreation for Catholic Charities, said there was an event planned for tonight at the West Side Senior Center, but it has since been canceled.

A bus load of people were coming in for the event, but it was canceled out of concern.

“It's too bad,” she said. “I feel bad for the brewery. That's one of the only things we have left in the city.”

Janet Riquelme lives on Court Street, just a couple blocks from where the fire broke out.

She said she came outside once she heard about the fire on the news.
She's concerned for her two kids.

Her daughter, Savannah, 7, said she was scared.

“I don't want to sleep in my room,” she said.

More help requested

According to 911 dispatchers in Oneida and Herkimer counties, the following fire agencies have also been dispatched to offer mutual aid in fighting the Utica blaze.

Mutual aid from New York Mills, Whitesboro and New Hartford was requested at 5:31 p.m., dispatchers said.

Frankfort town police were then requested at 5:48 p.m., followed by Ilion firefighters at 6:12 p.m., dispatchers said.

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