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Devastation In Downtown Cohoes After Fire Levels Nearly 20 Buildings


Residents are shaken and the images are startling after a massive fire devastated several downtown blocks of the city of Cohoes Thursday.

Fire departments from a number of nearby cities and towns were called in to help battle quickly-spreading flames that broke out in the 200 block of Remsen Street.

It was apparently touched off by an amateur bladesmith attempting to forge a sword in his backyard.

The Red Cross says 16 adults and two children received immediate assistance Thursday night. The Cohoes Community Center opened its doors for the displaced. "So many people have reached out to me about helping these fire victims. My suggestion is going to be just to hold off until we can put together some type of plan." Cohoes Mayor Shawn Morse declared a state of emergency.  "It's still dangerous in the downtown here, so I'm asking the citizens and people from the surrounding areas to please stay away from the downtown until we can get it cleaned up and there's gas leaks going on, there's still fire burning in some of the most damaged buildings, and there's a lot of people that'll be down here working.  It was just a fire of all fires and something I had never seen in my 26 years. Most importantly nobody got hurt. That was our number one concern. This morning we have DPW and support from Green Island coming. We're gonna start cleaning up the streets get all the soot and debris and glass out of the streets so we can try to bring back some sense of a normal downtown."

There were no reports of serious injuries. One firefighter was briefly hospitalized for heat exhaustion and Cohoes Fire Chief Joseph Fahd was treated for a burn on his cheek.

A 51-year-old Cohoes resident is facing arson and felony reckless endangerment charges. John Gomes pleaded not guilty and was jailed on $15,000 bail, with a preliminary hearing set for next Tuesday.  Morse says Gomes was trying to bend metal in his backyard, trying to emulate a demonstration televised by the History Channel. On "Forged in Fire," bladesmiths compete to recreate "history's most iconic edged weapons." Morse says a barrel fire Gomes started for forging purposes got out of control and quickly spread, engulfing the neighborhood in smoke, ash and flames.  "It's hard for me to understand what they were doin' but that barrel in 30 mile an hour winds burned three blocks of our city. I often tell people when they say 'why can't we have a small fire in our yard and why do they make us put it out?' I say 'you live in a city,' and this is an example of those things that could happen and you know today we have millions of dollars in damage."

Credit WNYT
Cohoes Fire Chief Joseph Fahd

Fire Chief Fahd says winds carried embers to other buildings, touching off several smaller fires. Three buildings were totally destroyed. About 20 buildings were affected all together and five businesses are now shut down. Fahd tells WAMC Friday morning that  the city is just beginning to assess the damage.  “Our DPW and Green Island have been up there since like 7:30 cleaning up the street and the debris and we’re waitin’ to do a contract to have the three buildings demolished and I have a couple of guys here with a hand line just wettin’ down the rubble until we get it cleared up.”

Police Captain Todd Pucci says people coming to Cohoes may experience minor inconveniences.  “Cleanup is taking place mainly at 228 and 226 Remsen Street, which is on the block of Remsen Street between Columbia Street and Howard Street and that area is currently blocked off to traffic. The businesses on that block are currently open but the road traffic is closed.”

Through it all, Mayor Morse says he is forever “Cohoes proud.”   "We spent 18 months working around the clock to start rebuilding Remsen Street and it's disheartening that we have to take a step back and start all over again. But that's what Cohoes is all about. We will overcome. We will rebound and we will be better than we were before the fire."

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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