A fact-finding hearing got underway in Lockport family court for a 14-year-old boy accused of negligent homicide, arson and criminal mischief in connection with the fire at the High Tread International (HTI) Tire Recycling plant in August 2016. That fire took the life of another Lockport teenager, 14-year-old Joe Phillips, who became trapped in a burning, empty building.
The massive fire caused evacuations and needed the help of dozens of fire companies to put out over the course of several days. It also left behind an estimated $13 million in damages.
Investigators believe that Phillips and his friend ignited the fire after setting papers ablaze in a second-floor abandoned office building on the east end of the property.
Phillips became trapped and died while his friend was able to escape.
During the fact-finding hearing, which is similar to a trial but without a jury, 911 calls and video taken by workers at HTI showed flames and billowing smoke was coming from the area where the boys set the fires nearly thirty minutes before police received information that Phillips may have been trapped inside.
Defense attorney Angelo DiMillo said the events were a "sad, sad day for the Lockport Community" but added there is "insufficient evidence" to prove his teenage client is guilty of negligent homicide or arson.
DiMillo told Family Court Judge John Batt that it was Phillips who had the intent to set the fires and did so before taking too long to get out of the burning building.
The defense attorney said Phillips had gone to the location previously to start paper fires.
According to Dimillo, the teen defendant left to get water to put out the paper fires that were spreading out of control, and when the boy last looked, Joe Phillips was trying to douse the flames with his shirt.
During the afternoon, a fire investigator testified that the fire was intentionally set in the center part of the empty office building. The investigator could not say for certain whether a lighter found was used to start the fire, a claim the defense had made in opening statements.
The investigator said rubber crumb dust in the air could have helped the fire accelerate. A worker from HTI testified earlier that he and his co-workers were amazed how quickly the blaze grew after it was spotted around 6:30 p.m. on August 10th.
The first call to 911 from a Lockport Police officer reporting someone may have been in the building came at 7:06 p.m.
Late in the afternoon, the teenage defendant was allowed to leave the courtroom while pictures of Joe Phillips' remains were shown to the judge. The fire investigator explained that it appeared that Phillips was trying to get to a second-floor window at the time of his death.
The fact-finding hearing continues on Thursday.