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A New Year’s Day blaze at the Depew-Lancaster Boys & Girls Club severely damaged the building – and tore a hole in the heart of the Depew community, which has depended on the club to provide safe haven and nurture to generations of children.

Dozens of volunteer firefighters worked Tuesday morning to try to limit damage in the three-story brick building, as dozens of area residents – some of them in tears – watched dark smoke billow from the top floor of the structure. The fire was brought under control at 11:45 a.m.

No one was inside the closed building when the fire was reported at about 9:30 a.m.

The blaze, which caused $600,000 damage, remains under investigation, Depew Fire Chief David G. Adamberger said.

One firefighter from Depew’s Engine 6 suffered minor injuries when he fell partway through a section of flooring on the second story. “He was taken to Erie County Medical Center and later released,” Adamberger said.

The fire, the chief said, appears to have started in the front of the first floor and worked its way up to the second floor and third floor.

“It must have been smoldering for hours before it was noticed. The whole upper floor of the old building is destroyed,” Adamberger said. “We are looking at electrical as the cause, but we’re not certain.”

Heading the investigation is Depew Detective and Fire Investigator Scott Hosfeld.

The main portion of the club, referred to as the older building, is situated at Terrace Boulevard and Litchfield Avenue, a few blocks east of Transit Road.

Smoke and water damage also occurred in the attached gymnasium on the Litchfield Avenue side of the complex, Adamberger said.

Neighbors described the club as a local institution. As they watched fire ravage the beloved community site, they said they found it hard to believe.

The children who depend on the club appeared to be among the most affected.

“I’m not happy. I’m mad,” 9-year-old Gregory Harrison said as firefighters knocked out block glass windows and cut a hole in the roof to vent the blaze. “I’ve been coming here since September.”

Sarah Burke, his mother, said Gregory was part of an after-school program that provided her with peace of mind while she was at work.

When asked how many children attend that program, Gregory quickly volunteered the answer: “There’s 32 kids.”

Dan Hammer stood watching with his 12-year-old son, “A.J.,” who was speechless.

“When I was a boy, I came here, and now my son comes here,” the elder Hammer said. “I still come here. We have adult basketball, and we just redid the floor for the basketball court.”

Officials for the club were too upset to speak, but the tears in their eyes spoke of the great sadness they were experiencing.

Depew Firefighter John Sterns, a retired Buffalo firefighter, said the club has been around for decades.

“I’m 50, and I went here as a boy,” Sterns said as he stood on Terrace Boulevard directing traffic away from the fire.

Lisa Rainville, Gregory’s grandmother, looked over at St. James School, part of the Blessed Mother Teresa Catholic Parish, and wondered if maybe the school, just across from the club, might open its doors temporarily to the club’s children.

“Greg goes to the club every day. He gets bused there from Cayuga Heights Elementary School. I don’t know where he’ll go now,” Rainville said.

The club has offered all kinds of activities for youngsters: arts and crafts, computers, photography, and a sprawling game room on the upper floor with pool tables, shuffle board, pingpong tables and other amusements.

And though the fire is believed to have gotten a strong head start, firefighters were able to make a quick response from the Depew Fire Department’s Southside firehouse, a block away on Meridian Street, Adamberger said.

Neighbor Judy Michaels said it was an uphill battle.

“We live right around the corner, and when we came out, the smoke was just pouring out of the roof line,” Michaels said. “This has been a big part of the community for many years. It’s a safe place for kids to go after school and on vacations.”

After attending New Year’s Day morning Mass in Blessed Mother Teresa Church, retired Depew School District biology teacher Joseph Enright reflected on just how deep the club’s roots run in the community.

“When I first started as a teacher, they had a fundraiser for the club, and I was hit for a sizable donation, which I did not mind making,” he said. “The school district’s athletes were closely tied to the club. It is a real institution. This fire is a real hit in the head.”

Other fire companies that assisted were Forks, Lancaster, Twin District and Lancaster Volunteer Ambulance Corps. The Ladies Auxiliary of the Depew Fire Department provided coffee and other refreshments for firefighters.

email: lmichel@buffnews.com