HORNELL — Firefighters battled an early morning blaze in the city Friday that Steuben County District Attorney Brooks Baker referred to as a “worst case scenario” meth lab explosion.
Meanwhile, county and city authorities arrested two individuals on drug charges after executing a search warrant.
The Hornell Fire Department received a call regarding a structure fire with the possibility of people trapped in a residence on 9 Olive Place Friday at 2:54 a.m.
Upon arrival, the first engine to respond to the scene reported smoke coming from a rear upstairs window and called for additional help from off-duty firefighters.
“They called for some help because we had reports that there were people inside that came over from 911,” Hornell Fire Chief Dan Smith told The Evening Tribune Friday.
The first crew to arrive stretched a line off and made their way upstairs where they found a fully involved bedroom fire. Firefighters made a quick knockdown, split up and then began a search of the apartment for occupants.
The upper apartment received extensive damage to the bedroom with minor smoke and water damage to the rest of the apartment.
Officially the cause of the fire is under investigation but Baker said all signs point to a meth lab explosion.
“It appears at this stage that it’s an explosion associated with a methamphetamine production,” Baker said. “There were a number of folks in the residence at the time.”
According to Smith, the first crew to attack the blaze reported an unusual flaring as water was applied to the fire. Chemicals and containers consistent with the production of methamphetamine were also present in the bedroom that was involved in the fire.
“When they hit the fire with the line, they noticed unusual reaction to the water,” Smith said. “It didn’t go out — it flared up. In the back of their minds they were figuring something was up when they were attacking the fire. After they put the fire out they noticed some different containers, precursors. Batteries, muriatic acid, Coleman fuel, different containers that they converted to manufacture methamphetamine.”
From eyewitness accounts prior to firefighters’ arrival, two occupants were seen leaving the apartment with one of them reportedly on fire. The Hornell Police Department searched the area and checked with the emergency room at St. James Mercy Hospital as well as various locations in the city but had been unable to locate the alleged occupants.
However, both Baker and Hornell Police confirmed to The Evening Tribune that one of the occupants is currently in custody.
“Others are being sought, the investigation continues,” Baker said.
The identity of the man is custody is not being revealed at this time due to the ongoing investigation.
“We’ve already made very good headway given the hard work of the Hornell Police Department and the assistance they got from my investigators and the North Hornell State Police,” Baker said.
The New York State Police Contaminated Crime Scene Emergency Response Team arrived at the scene Friday morning and was expected to be there for the balance of the day. The Hornell Fire Department assisted with an engine and ambulance for precautionary reasons.
Other than the victim who was allegedly on fire, no further injuries have been reported. Smith noted that residents in the downstairs apartment had already evacuated upon firefighters’ arrival.
“They’ve taken quite a few, more than we thought, containers that were in the process of ‘cooking,’ as they call it,” Smith said. “There’s a lot going on up there in that apartment and luckily no one got hurt except for the person that we heard was on fire. We’re lucky none of our guys got hurt.”
Baker, who was in Hornell on Friday thanked firefighters and law enforcement for their quick response to the blaze, noting that the situation could have become much more volatile than it ultimately ended up being.
“The methamphetamine fire is again a situation that’s extremely scary,” Baker said. “It’s what can happen in these things and it could have killed the upstairs apartment, it could have killed the folks downstairs, it could have involved the entire street. The Olive (Place) area is a relatively compact neighborhood. If that house went up really, really bad things could’ve happened.
“Part of it is just plain luck and anybody involved in methamphetamine production could at any time have a situation like this happen and hurt a lot of people.”
The Hornell Area Humane Society rescued two dogs, three cats and one rabbit from the scene of the fire according to executive director Barbara Stephens.
Fire equipment used at the scene is currently being decontaminated by Hornell firefighters.
According to Smith, the South Hornell Volunteer Fire Department was on standby in case the fire spread to any of the tightly packed homes on Olive Place.
Later in the day, Hornell Police and the Steuben County District Attorney’s Office executed a search warrant on 66 Sawyer St. late Friday morning in what Baker referred to as a “separate, distinct” investigation.
“All I can officially say is this was an investigation that came from and through the Hornell Police Department,” Baker said. “It was in the works for a period of a time and a search warrant was executed there. There are two people in custody and a quantity of heroin and other evidence associated with the trafficking and sale of heroin was taken from that location.”
The identities of those arrested on Sawyer Street are currently being withheld as the investigation regarding that case is currently ongoing.
“This was another example of cooperative law enforcement,” Baker said. “The investigation was spearheaded by the Hornell Police Department but there was assistance from the whole drug initiative including members of D.A. staff, Sheriff’s Department, Corning Police Department and other departments as well.”
Even though drugs continue to be an issue city and county authorities face on a regular basis, Baker credited the Hornell Police Department for spearheading great cooperation between different levels of law enforcement.
“Both situations involved clear cooperative policing,” Baker said. “The Hornell Police Department took the lead in both cases but we had help from other agencies to make these cases work … They’re both examples of good, heads-up police work by the Hornell Police Department and then the cooperation of other agencies in making these cases run.”