The proprietor of a popular Genesee Street auto-repair shop died Friday afternoon from injuries sustained in a rapidly moving fire that broke out while he and an employee were fixing a car, according to witnesses at the scene.
Steve Pawlowski, 56, of the Town of Tonawanda, died in Erie County Medical Center, where he was taken after neighbors reportedly dragged his burning body out of Steve’s Auto Service, 2280 Genesee St.
Several witnesses at the scene talked to the shaken employee, who told them he and Pawlowski were working on a fuel pump in the garage when the office phone rang.
“The employee ran inside the office to answer it,” said Coleman Jones, one of the many neighbors who gathered at the scene. “Seconds later Steve screamed ‘fire’ and the whole shop was engulfed in flames.”
Forty-five Buffalo firefighters responded to the fire reported at 1:10 p.m., according to Fire Commissioner Garnell Whitfield, who also was at the scene.
A second person believed to have suffered a knee injury during the fire was also transported to ECMC, Whitfield said. His injury was not believed to be life-threatening.
After the neighbors dragged Pawlowski from the garage, they ran across East End Street to a restaurant for help, said Frederick Sanders, 32, a cook at Pine Hill Halal Market, 2286 Genesee St.
“Someone came in here screaming that a guy was on fire and burning,” Sanders said. “My first reaction was to grab a bucket, fill it with water and run outside. He was on fire, so I poured the water on him. Someone else was rubbing snow on his back. Then we heard popping, and we thought the building was going to blow up so we dragged him further away from the fire.”
Whitfield said that reports of an explosion were unconfirmed.
“The combustible and flammable properties of the contents presented additional challenges to the firefighters,” said Whitfield,
The one-story garage was fully engulfed with flames that spewed heavy smoke. Damages were estimated at $200,000 to the structure and $110,000 to its contents.
The auto repair shop had been a fixture in the neighborhood on the border of Buffalo and Cheektowaga.
Cheektowaga Police Lt. Anthony Filipski, who grew up a few streets away from the garage on Barbara Street, described the business as a former Texaco station.
“He had gas pumps,” said Filipski. “This place was always open and always busy. There were always cars there. They were always working on them.”
Filipski was one of the first people on the scene.
“He was in bad shape at that point. You could tell he was burned badly. They were working on him for a long time, performing CPR before putting him in the ambulance.”
Filipski, who was on patrol at Genesee and Union Road, said Buffalo firefighters responded within minutes. The radio call, he said, came over as a house explosion.
As many firefighters remained on the scene to clean up, homicide detectives sifted through the nearby snow and recovered what appeared to be parts of clothing.
Because of the fatality in the fire, it was standard procedure to summon members from the Buffalo Police Homicide Squad to investigate, Whitfield confirmed.
As firefighters worked to clear the scene, David Novak, 36, of Humason Street stood watching with his son Dylan, 7.
“It definitely had to be hot in there for it to look like that,” said Novak, an auto mechanic for 15 years, referring to the smoke-blackened areas above each of the garage’s three bays. “A couple of times, I’ve had close calls working in fuel pumps. If you‘re not careful, the fumes will ignite everything. I mean something had to ignite it. It’s a very tricky and dangerous business to be in.”
As word of Pawlowski’s death passed through the neighborhood, many people gathered at nearby taverns to talk about the tragic fire and loss of their friend.
At the Edge of Town Restaurant, patrons including Don Gerstenmeyer, 70, bemoaned the loss of a good mechanic and trustworthy man who was fair with his prices. Pawlowski, they said, was a community mechanic.
“I’ve been going there for about 30 years,” said Gerstenmeyer, a retired chief engineer for the City of Buffalo. “Gas tanks, transmissions – he could fix it all. His father had it before him. Steve was a great guy. You couldn’t find a better place to take your car.”