Two teenagers unwittingly embarked on a tragedy in Lockport NY in August 2016 when they started a fire during an afternoon of mischief in a vacant building. Joe Phillips (14) and a 13-year-old male friend who remains anonymous, were at the High Tread International facility near the banks of the Erie Canal where the fire they ignited soon raged out of control.
Phillips phoned his friend, leaving a voicemail message for the 13-year-old who was with him moments earlier. With the flames out of control, Phillips cursed his luck and said on the phone, "I'm really stuck, dude." Shouting, Phillips shouted could be heard to say, "I'm (expletive) going to die." With a tone that betrayed the realization of the danger that faced him, Phillips said as he panted, "Sorry, dude. I love you, man. I never thought I'd die this way."
Video and audio that was found on the survivor’s phone offered a perspective on the events of that fateful day, August 10, 2016. Using a fire escape for entry, the teenaged boys walked through the darkened building where they ignited papers and watched them burn. One boy said, "This is how you make, like, a real big fire." The other boy replied, "Oh, it's going to spread out. Oh, it's so cool."
According to defense attorney A. Angelo DiMillo, when he realized that the fire was spreading quickly, the surviving boy ran outside for water while Joe used his shirt to dampen the flames. The surviving teen did not, however, call 911 for emergency services.
Facing Family Court on Tuesday, he may be sentenced to 18 months in a juvenile detention facility after pleading guilty in March to arson and burglary as part of an agreement that eliminated a charge of criminally negligent homicide. The surviving teen is now 14 years old. Because of his age, the name of the boy has not been released. He has been hospitalized several times for mental health treatment. According to a probation officer’s account, the teen has tried to harm himself.
Phillips mother has said that her son “wanted to be friends with everybody.” Ann Phillips, Joe’s mother, wept when she heard her son’s last words when played in court earlier this year. So far, she has not said whether she agrees with the charges laid against her son’s erstwhile friend.
The fire at the High Tread International in Lockport filled the sky with flames and thick, black smoke. Approximately 200 nearby homes were evacuated. Hundreds of firefighters were involved in controlling the blaze at the recycling center, in which some 40 fire departments participated. Tripling the normal consumption of water in a day for Lockport, firefighters battled the flames by also drawing water from the nearby Erie Canal.
Phillips’ body was found by fire crews on August 13, 2016. Even so, Phillips’ family hoped, even weeks after the fire was controlled, that he might still be alive but missing. His elder sister, Alyssa Phillips wrote on Facebook, "He might be scared and he's hiding to avoid getting into trouble," while the fire burned for the second of three days. "Until I see his dead body, I will keep believing he's alive," Alyssa Phillips wrote.