Fire ravages three McGraw homes

Flames spread from blast in garage

Staff Reporter

McGRAW — An explosion beneath the hood of a car Friday afternoon rapidly grew into a fire that heavily damaged three houses and a garage in the village.
No injuries were reported, but the blaze affected three families — 15 people in all. The Red Cross was helping the families Friday night.
Thomas Clendenning of 21 Church St. turned the key in the ignition of his 1998 Audi and heard what he believed to be a gas-ignited explosion in his garage.
“The moment it fired up, the whole (area) under the hood went up and then the garage went,” he said, pointing at the charred wooden structure.
Next to the garage, Clendenning’s freshly painted olive green house quickly caught fire, he said.
His wife and two children were not home when the fire began, he said. His only injury from the explosion was a cut on his right hand.
“The house went up like a candle — it lit that fast,” he said.
Black smoke poured out of the roof as firefighters from five county departments pointed hoses and doused the house in water.
The fire spread from Clendenning’s garage to his next-door neighbor’s house at 19 Church St, according to Jeff Sherwood, third-assistant McGraw fire chief.
“I was at the park with the kids, when I got a call that my house was on fire,” said Edward Grant, who lives at 19 Church St.
Grant said he rents the house and lives there with a woman and four children.
The McGraw Fire Department was the first on the scene, arriving seven minutes after the initial call, which came in at 1:58 p.m.
Sherwood said 21 Church St. sustained very heavy smoke, fire and water damage. Next door, the house at 19 Church St. had some exterior fire damage, but the structure was still intact, he said.
Damage estimates were unavailable as of Friday night.
“We had it pretty much under control after an hour, hour and a half,” he said.
After engulfing both Church Street houses, the fire spread behind Clendenning’s house to the neighbors at 16 North St., where five people live.
Anthony “Butch” Scavelitti, who lives in the North Street home, tried keep the side of his house cool with a garden hose, so the fire would not spread from Clendenning’s garage to his house. Several minutes later, it did. The Cortland City Fire Department, which arrived at the scene around 2 p.m. took care of knocking down the fire at 16 North St.
“Just the porch was on fire when we initially arrived,” said city fire Capt. Michael Ondrako.
The fire quickly spread to the kitchen, and the city fire department was able to extinguish flames in the kitchen and on the porch within 10 minutes, Ondrako said.
“The porch was destroyed and the kitchen had substantial damage,” he said.
The rest of the house had smoke and water damage and several extension fires in the attic and roof, but Ondrako said the overall structure was “in pretty good shape.”
Sherwood said the department is still investigating the cause of the blaze.
Charlotte Farris from the Red Cross walked among all the people standing between North and Church streets to find the residents of the three houses.
“We have to find out how bad it is, so we can figure out if they need a place to stay,” Farris said, as she wrote down names of the residents.
Betsy Clendenning, Thomas’ wife, was at work at Intertek in Polkville, when she got the call about her house.
“I was at work. I don’t even know what started it,” she said as her eyes filled up with tears.
Lyla Phillips was upstairs in her Church Street house sewing when she looked out the window and saw the two Church Street houses across the street burning.
“Things got really dark and I quickly closed all of the windows to try to keep the smoke out,” Phillips said. “I looked out of the window and the side column on the (Clendenning’s) house was black and up in flames.”


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Cortland couple among 45 asking for states OK on same-sex marriages

Staff Reporter

Seated in Court of Appeals Hall in Albany beneath its hand-carved woodwork and soaring ceilings, watching big-time lawyers field questions from the most powerful judges in the state, Jim Pelton realized the magnitude of the struggle for marriage rights for same-sex couples he’s involved in.
“It was just so much more real sitting there in court,” Jim said. “It was like something you’d see in the movies, or something you read about in history books, but then you realize that it’s your civil rights they’re up there talking about.”
Jim and his partner, Jason, who asked that his last name not be included in this story, are among 45 same-sex couples from across the state who were denied marriage licenses and who are plaintiffs in the case that went before the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, on Wednesday.
The Cortland residents traveled to Albany, as did a number of other plaintiffs and same-sex couples interested in the case’s outcome, both to watch the proceedings, and to humanize the issue for the six justices who presided over the hearing.
“I don’t think the court was prepared for the level of interest,” said Jim, noting that a line formed outside the courthouse hours before the hearing began, and an overflow room was made available to accommodate all those interested in watching.
“We just wanted to put faces with the names in the case. We wanted the judges to see that it was real couples, with real issues.”