15 houses destroyed in Coatesville arson
After watching the 14th arson of 2009 savagely gut a block of rowhouses early yesterday morning, Coatesville officials declared a state of emergency to help protect residents in this small community of about 11,000.
COATESVILLE, Pa. - After watching the 14th arson of 2009 savagely gut a block of rowhouses early yesterday morning, Coatesville officials declared a state of emergency to help protect residents in this small community of about 11,000.
The four-alarm blaze began about 11:30 Saturday night at the back of a house in the middle of the 300 block of Fleetwood Street. It spread quickly to 15 houses, causing damage of well over $1 million and leaving dozens homeless, said Kristin Geiger, a city spokeswoman. All residents were evacuated safely, she said.
Officials called the fire, which required assistance from 25 departments in Chester, Montgomery and Lancaster Counties, "suspicious in nature and consistent with" the 13 unsolved arsons that have plagued the city since the start of the year, Geiger said.
Sources close to the investigation said the fire was definitely arson.
Last year, Coatesville, which typically has one or two arsons a year, recorded 15. In December, three people, all still in custody, were charged with arson - one of the fires killed an 83-year-old woman.
John Wenger, 40, who lives on the block, said he heard noises and looked out the window to see "smoke billowing out" from rooftops several doors away. He said he grabbed his cellphone, wallet and laptop and ran outside, joining neighbors in banging on doors.
"These are really good people on this block," he said, adding that many were renters without insurance. "They don't deserve this - they lost everything."
Brandy Hickman, who lived with her two children, mother and brother on the block, said her mother had just celebrated her final mortgage payment about a month ago.
"Thank goodness she has fire insurance," Hickman said, weeping as she watched officials begin boarding up doors and windows.
Hickman said she hoped to stay with a nearby relative so that her children, ages 5 and 9, could go to school today, assuming she could find clothes for them.
The Associated Press reported that the home of City Councilwoman Robin Scott was among the ones destroyed.
“To see it all happen the way that it did was devastating and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone,” a tearful Scott said last night to a meeting of citizens and city officials.
She and her family safely escaped after police began knocking on doors.
Denise Venuti Free, a spokeswoman for the Southeastern Pennsylvania chapter of the Red Cross, said the agency had provided financial assistance for food and clothing and hotel accomodations to 14 families, including 32 adults and 18 children.
She urged anyone else who has been affected to call the Red Cross at 215-299-4000.
Many residents of the block returned yesterday to see whether any of their belongings were salvageable. They estimated that between 50 and 60 people were displaced by the fire, including Robin Scott, a member of Coatesville City Council.
Some of the more fortunate victims waited for insurance adjusters as a steady stream of onlookers passed, shaking their heads in disbelief at the devastation.
One of them, Chester County District Attorney Joseph W. Carroll, said that whoever was responsible for the crimes faced more than a life sentence because the maximum penalty for a single arson conviction is 20 years.
"I think life in prison is an appropriate punishment, given the extent of the property damage and terror to an entire city," he said.
Carroll, who has been critical of city officials' crime-fighting efforts, has been soliciting volunteers for a block watch and hosting a twice-weekly open house at a property he is rehabbing on Eighth Avenue.
Calvin Grove, a member of Coatesville Men United, which has applauded Carroll's initiative, said more community involvement was critical.
"There aren't enough cops. Until people get off their tails and get out here, it won't stop," he said, surveying the wreckage.
Because most of the fires have been traced to outside trash cans and furniture, residents have been urged to clear their porches. Geiger said the state of emergency would enable city workers to remove whatever they deem dangerous and allow officials to immediately buy safety equipment.
City Manager Harry Walker said federal, state, county and city officials were working nonstop to solve the crimes, which he called "as brazen as it gets."
Walker said the city, which has been distributing smoke detectors and batteries, would buy motion-detector lights in bulk and make them available to residents at a reduced rate. He said he would also start recommending that people get dogs.
"We may even pass an ordinance requiring porch lights," he said. "If we have to light up the whole city, we'll do that."
Hickman, who described her block as extraordinarily congenial, said it was hard to understand how deranged someone must be to commit these crimes.
"I just hope they catch them," she said tearfully. "We have babies here; someone could have been hurt or killed."
Residents can report suspicious activity during late-night and early-morning hours to a roving police patrol supervisor at 610-636-0514.
Rewards for information leading to a conviction have been posted by the Citizens Crime Commission (offering up to $5,000) at 215-546-TIPS or www.crimecommission.org/; and by Crime Stoppers (up to $2,000) at 1-800-4PA-TIPS or www.pacrimestoppers.org/.