Long ago fire is the reason tractor trailers can no longer travel 'the East Hill'
It’s been nearly five decades since the 1969 fiery crash on Route 20A – or as the road is known among the locals “the East Hill” – that claimed one life and prompted the ban on tractor-trailers from traveling that route. Today, a large red sign over the westbound lane directs “trucks, buses and cars with trailers” to exit Route 20A a quarter-mile up the road, giving truck drivers an alternate route to Warsaw.
Just last week, two truck drivers were charged, after driving down “the East Hill.”
Rowdy D. Schmidt, 47, of Portland, Tenn., was stopped on East Buffalo Street following an investigation on a hit and run that “took out” roadsigns on the East Hill. He was charged April 5 with logbook violation, operator leaving the scene of a property damage accident, failure to obey traffic device, and operator without a certificate of registration.
Harbans Singh Bedi, 36, of Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada, was stopped on West Buffalo Street April 8 and charged with aggravated unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle in the third degree, logbook violation, failure to obey traffic device, and vehicle size violation. He was put in Wyoming County Jail in lieu of $1,000 cash bail or $2,000 bond.
Both men are due in court May 22.
Warsaw hasn’t seen a fire in the Village like the one on that September evening since 1969. Prior to that day, “the East Hill” was never limited to truck traffic – although it had been known as “dead man’s curve,” and “fruit salad.” Warsaw firefighters coined the road name “fruit salad” after one truck dumped its load of watermelon on “the West Hill” (Route 20A on the west side of Main Street), and another truck dumped its load of bananas on “the East Hill.” After which, Beanie says, the department ate bananas for weeks.
Today, there is a nine-ton weight limit on Route 20A west – based on the history of that section of road.
According to long-time Warsaw Fire Department member, past Warsaw Chief, and past President of the WNY Firemen’s Association, Francis “Beanie” Head, it was “one hell of a fire, I tell you that!”
“The only reason we only lost one life is because it was evening supper hour and all the families were home ready to eat – they were able to get out the back door of their houses… all four of those houses. Unfortunately for them they lost everything they had.”
Head, or Beanie as he is known, had just come home from work and was about ready to have supper with his family. His oldest daughter was celebrating her birthday and his family just sat down to eat.
“I hadn’t even taken a bite yet when I heard a big boom,” Beanie said. “I turned to my wife and said ‘I don’t like that. I’m headed for the car.’ My pager went off just as I was getting in the car, and what they had told me was there were four houses fully involved and a gas tanker was overturned and on fire on East Buffalo Street.”
Beanie says he wasted no time and sped off to the fire hall, driving through flames before he reached and parked the car at the station.
“After the fire, I caught hell for that from my wife, as it was a new car.”
According to reports at that time, the driver of the tractor-trailer had said he lost his brakes coming down the hill and lost control of the vehicle. He was able to escape the cab of the semi before it crashed – spilling 8,000 gallons of gas onto the road – and burst into flames. However, on its way down the hill and into the curve, the tractor-trailer hit a vehicle, subsequently killing the driver of the station wagon.
“We later found out he was a salesman working in this area.”
Beanie and fellow firefighter Bruce Brown were first to arrive at the department and on the scene with a pumper truck. However, the fire was so intense they were only able to get it as far as Short Street because of the flames.
Although firefighters started to arrive on the scene, Beanie was the only chief – second assistant chief – so the title of Chief in Charge fell on his shoulders.
“I had placed a call saying ‘This is Warsaw 5.0. I want a full turnout of all departments to Warsaw. I have four houses fully involved and a tanker still burning.’ I had no more hung up the mic when Wyoming 5.0 (Joe Lee at the time) called in and said they were ‘at the monument, where do you want us?’ They hadn’t waited for a tone-out. They just showed up.”
The Chief in Charge had directed Wyoming to the back of the houses for a water screen. (A water screen is an almost fan-like spray of water from a specialized nozzle. It's typically used to wet down an area that is not involved in the fire to keep it from burning.) When Gainesville Fire Department showed up, he sent them up Livingston Street to protect those houses.
“There was nothing we could do with the burning houses as they were fully consumed. We were just going to wet them down to protect the other houses.”
Every department in the county showed up, the Warsaw Village Police, Wyoming County Sheriff’s Department, New York State Troopers out of Warsaw, and from Genesee County, Geneseo Ambulance and Le Roy Fire Department. There were a total of 22 departments and approximately 300 men and women working the scene.
“We were working the best we could to keep everything else nearby from burning and the next thing I know, there’s a deputy at the stoplight …so nothing moved up our street. Come to find out afterwards, he was an Attica fireman and had his pager on his uniform, too. The Geneseo Ambulance came on the scene and told us they had just dropped a patient off at the hospital and asked if I’d like them to stand by on the scene to cover any squad calls. I have to say, in this county, it doesn’t matter whose fire it is, when help is needed, everybody comes.”
There was so much more power behind the fire because the gas from the tanker acted as an accelerant, fire officials say. The fire was so intensely hot, firemen tried to take cover behind roadsigns to keep some of the heat off them.
Then, crews heard another explosion, but this time it was on Main Street – from a manhole.
“This told me what was happening. We had gas in the storm drains. It got into the drain inlets on Buffalo Street that run into Main Street, which eventually leads to the disposal plant (Department of Public Works on Linwood Avenue).”
When the truck overturned and slid down the roadway it not only caused sparks to fly, the tanker was split open, dumping the gas along the way. Subsequently, the fuel made its way into the storm drains – which were also tied into residential basement drains – and simply followed the path of least resistance, straight to the wastewater treatment plant on Linwood – two miles away.
“We knew it made its way to the disposal plant because we got a call saying there was gas burning down there. The fire also blew three manhole covers on Main Street so we had shut it down.”
Some of the old photos show the gas running down the street, Beanie says.
A call had been placed to one of the chemical plants in Buffalo for a gas neutralizing agent. The caller had been told they were loading 55-gallon drums onto a truck as they spoke.
“When the driver pulled into the fire hall, his hands were just shaking as he asked me where I wanted the chemical. I told him we were going to go up toward the fire and drop some in the inlets from there. The driver asked if he could take a break – and my wife was part of the Auxiliary and was getting food made for the guys, next thing she’s doing is coming out with a big cup of coffee for him. I think he spilled as much as he drank.
"So I said ‘man what did you do?’ He said ‘there were two state police cars in front of me and two behind me and I never stopped from the time I left that plant. This is a brand-new truck, I had that thing rolling about 80 (mph).’ "
Beanie “got guys together” and they began the arduous task of getting the 55-gallon drums to the storm drains and began dropping the chemical down the drain, so to speak.
“It was damn scary. When we got all done, we stored the remaining drums in the fire hall.”
While several fire departments worked the scene between the train trestle and the Warsaw Fire Hall, Perry Center and Perry fire departments were just east of the trestle “hosing on that end” so the fire wouldn’t “walk up” the hill. There had also been a report of a fire on Oatka Creek on Main Street, to which Silver Springs Fire Department responded.
Firefighters were on the scene for more than 72 hours battling the blaze. The fire destroyed four homes but didn’t touch the others nearby due to the actions of firefighters watering down the other houses. Firemen also wetted the roofs of the burning homes to keep any sparks or flying tinder from reaching the other houses.
“The fire was burning all night. There was no sense in putting it completely out because it would have cost the homeowners a fortune to get everything cleaned up, so we were trying to help minimize the cost for the residents. At that point, there wasn’t anything salvageable…there was no way to rebuild anything that would may have still stood.”
Because the fire got into the brick and the cinder blocks of the homes, it had degraded them for continued use, thereby rendering them useless.
“My boss came by and even asked what they could do,” said Beanie, who worked for the State Highway Department. “I asked if he could have an operator with a grade-all in the morning to pull up to the basements and stir the stuff around so we could wet any hotspots.
“This whole town was very receptive to the work we had done. We had the respect of every citizen from this town. We had a stack of 'thank yous' from the members of the community. It was a mutual working of organizations that saved the village, really.”
While crews were walking around checking all the houses and everybody on the street, Beanie says it was like attending a funeral, people were scared, yet they were glad it was over. There was a deep sense of sorrow for the four families who lost their homes…who lost everything, and for the salesman who died.
But as Beanie said, “It was a time when everyone came together as a community. It was a helluva three-day deal…I tell you that.”
At 86 years old, Beanie is still as active as he can be in the Warsaw Fire Department. As current Fire Chief Joe Cummins says, “He’s 4-foot-nothin’ in stature, but 10-foot-somethin’ in personality.”
“I enjoy this,” Beanie said. “If something serious happens, I mourn with them and I try to be there to back them up….and I always will be, as long as I can walk.”