Mayor Jennings says most chemicals removed years ago, but unclear if residues remain

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Date: Saturday, October 23, 2010

ALBANY -- A fire that began raging Friday inside the Central Warehouse, a massive, blighted concrete building just north of downtown, is expected to burn through the weekend.

The fire sent thick clouds of acrid smoke billowing around the neighborhood and over the Hudson River into the city of Rensselaer.

Albany Fire Chief Robert Forezzi determined it was too dangerous to battle the blaze from inside, so fire pumpers surrounded the building, pouring water through its small windows for hours on end. Mayor Jerry Jennings said firefighters aimed to keep the blaze under control, to prevent it from spreading, but the fire would not be out anytime soon.

"They are telling me three days, maybe longer," he said. "I don't want a firefighter in that building. The chief made that decision early on. I fully support it."

Jennings said the cause of the fire is not yet known. "We'll have a thorough investigation," he added.

There was no worry that the building would collapse, the mayor said. The walls are about three feet thick.

Vacant for more than 20 years, the building was built in 1927 as a cold-storage and dry-goods warehouse.

Jennings said the chemicals in the refrigeration units were supposedly cleaned out years ago, but he worries about any residual contaminants. He asked the state Health Department to monitor the smoke for pollutants.

Smoke billowed out of five of the 11 floors of the landmark building at Montgomery and Colonie streets. It blew east over the Hudson River into Rensselaer, but dispatchers there was a smell, but no major problems.

The flames drew hundreds of people downtown. One parking lot on Broadway looked like a drive-in movie theater, with more than a dozen cars parked angled toward the building as the occupants watched the blaze.

"I was working in the EnCon building and saw the fire, so after dinner we came down," said Anthony DeBonis of Albany, who was parked with his young son. "It's been vacant for over 20 years. I drive by it every day, and I've been wondering when they'd tear it down."

Richard Streb had come from Oregon to visit his son Benjamin, a freshman at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. They were driving down I-787 from Troy toward Albany when they saw the smoke.

"What you really saw was a large plume coming up," he said. Father and son then came over to watch.

Flames could be seen pouring out windows of three floors on one side of the building, and fire also was visible coming from the roof. At one point Friday evening, a helicopter circled the building several times shining a spotlight on its roof.

Firefighters from surrounding communities including Troy and Cohoes aided Albany's firefighters.

The fire created major traffic problems nearby. Authorities closed Exit 4A from I-787.

An Amtrak spokeswoman said trains north and west of Albany were at a standstill because the person operating the Livingston Avenue Bridge, which carries rail traffic over the Hudson River, had to be evacuated from the office. Tracks run near the warehouse.

"We cannot get in or out of Albany without an operator," she said.

Julio Melendez, who owns neighboring Nors & T, LLC towing company with his son, Julian Melendez, said employees noticed the smoke at about 4 p.m. Fire crews arrived in minutes. The fire temporarily closed his business.

"We've had to tell a couple of trucks to go somewhere else. The trucks we have here can't get out," Julio Melendez.

Melendez said the previous owners were active in the neighborhood, but current owners kept a lower profile.

Kelly Gilliam, owner of Duffy's Taxi on Montgomery Street, said nearly all of her cabs were trapped on their lot because of the fire.

"Nobody is coming to us and telling us anything," she said.

The building looms over an industrial part of the city and has been mostly vacant since the early 1990s.

Developers have long eyed the warehouse for redevelopment, and a group of investors purchased the 400,000-square-foot building in 2007 with plans to turn it into a retail, office and residential complex.

That proposal never materialized, and earlier this year the warehouse was back on the market with a $4.9 million asking price.

One feature of the building: An old New York Central rail line runs directly into the second floor.

A decade ago, the behemoth was the subject of a legal action brought by then-Attorney General Dennis Vacco.

Vacco's office in 2000 got a court order to prevent the potential release of ammonia gas over downtown.

A bankruptcy court judge, at Vacco's request, ordered electrical power to remain on at the Central Warehouse, a landmark easily visible to thousands of commuters from I-787.The building's then-owners were going through bankruptcy court proceedings and were being pressed to cease all operations at the building.

Prosecutors said they entered the case because closing down the facility could cause an environmental disaster. The building contained an old refrigeration system containing thousands of pounds of ammonia gas, along with layers of 18-inch-thick ice on several upper floors.

Shutting off the power could cause the temperature to rise, the gas to expand and, possibly, valves to burst, releasing ammonia into Albany's air, Vacco argued.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation inspected the site in 2000, recommending the refrigeration system be purged of ammonia before being turned off.

-- Business writers Chris Churchill and Eric Anderson and Director of News Research Sarah Hinman Ryan contributed to this story.

Reach Tim O'Brien at 454-5092 or tobrien@timesunion.com.

On the Web

For more photos and updates of the fire, see http://www.timesunion.com