DUNKIRK - Central Avenue filled with smoke, lights and sirens Wednesday as firefighters battled into the night against a blaze that consumed the Masonic Temple building and threatened nearby structures.
Witnesses said they noticed signs of or were informed of the fire around 5:30 p.m., although responders appear to have been notified sooner.
Willy Rivera, a probation officer who works on the third floor of the neighboring North County Office Building, said he was alerted by a phone call saying his own building may be on fire.
Firefighters in Dunkirk battled a large fire in the Masonic Temple building on Central Avenue on Wednesday. The building formerly housed Chautauqua County Family Court offices and borders the North County Office Building.
Photo by Matthew Panebianco
"I looked out the back window and noticed there was smoke coming out of the next-door building," he said.
The Masonic Temple building itself was mostly unoccupied except for a few workers and a gymnastics class at the time the fire is thought to have broken out. The class, Dynamics Unlimited led by Carol Cotton, was located on the top floor of the four-story structure and had more than 30 young children in attendance, including 7-year-old Chris Anne Mosier.
"One of my friends smelled the smoke and then we saw it, the smoke in the gymnastics room," she said. "That's sort of how we noticed there was a fire."
Mosier said the lights went out and she did not hear any alarms as the students were organized and taken down the stairwell to escape the building. They met firefighters who were entering the building on the first floor.
"Some people were scared; I was just nervous," she said. "And some people were crying, they were really scared."
Carl Mosier, Chris Anne's father, who was on his way to pick up his daughter, said he received a call from his daughter from the safety of the parking lot of P&G Foods, where the students were gathered until their parents arrived. There were no reported injuries.
"Nerve-wracking is if somebody else would've called, but once I talked to her and she was OK, the nerves really weren't there," he said. "I may sit back and think about this tomorrow, but yeah..."
Bill Matteson, owner of Matteson-Kempo Karate on the floor below the gymnastics class, congratulated Cotton and her staff for acting quickly to take the children to safety.
"Just hearing that there was 36 kids up there and that Mrs. Cotton did the right thing, it was nice to see, like the A-Team said, how a plan came together; just to see by the grace of God she got every one of those kids out - 36 kids down four stories and out a door was remarkable."
The starting time of Matteson's own classes were changed this week from 5 to 6 p.m., meaning none of his students were in the building at the time of the fire.
During the initial stages of the blaze, activity was most visible from the back of the building, where billowing smoke was visible from Interstate 90. Firefighters concentrated their external efforts there.
"When we came out, there were no flames," said Brandon Grabias, who was in the North County Office Building at the time of the fire. "We couldn't see flames - just smoke - and we could hear windows breaking. And then you could see the flames coming out and then a power line snapped off and that exploded a couple times. It was pretty intense."
Over time, the extent of the fire grew until the front of the building was visibly aflame. The top of the south side of the building, facing Fourth Street, collapsed. Dunkirk resident Leonard Wilson said he saw debris fall on top of the neighboring One Liberty Square building.
"It came down and the doors blew right open - from the force and the pressure, they blew right open," he said.
A multitude of fire companies from throughout the area gathered to help battle the fire and protect surrounding buildings from damage as roads surrounding the site were closed off. Represented companies included but were not limited to Dunkirk City, West Dunkirk, East Dunkirk, Fredonia, Sheridan, Mayville and Brocton. A line was run directly down Central Avenue and into Lake Erie to provide additional water, closing off Route 5.
A state fire investigator was observed on the scene Wednesday night. Firefighters were still on the scene at press time.
According to records, The Masonic Temple building, located at 323-325 Central Ave., is owned by Robert Lesser under Palmer-Bryand Realty, Inc. The full market value of the building is estimated at $374,500.