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Annette John-Hall: A deeper need in Coatesville

Just this week, 15 Coatesville rowhouses burned to a crisp. The city's on edge. Nervous residents are sleeping in their clothes with their most cherished possessions close by, just in case.

Just this week, 15 Coatesville rowhouses burned to a crisp. The city's on edge. Nervous residents are sleeping in their clothes with their most cherished possessions close by, just in case.

Some living through the horror of the flames. All living in fear that it will happen again.

Sadly, chances are it will. After all, the city has suffered 15 deliberately set fires already this year, equal to the total number there last year. Those match-happy terrorists are still on the loose, no doubt high-fiving each other for their attention-grabbing arsons.

Yet for all of the national headlines and the dire, state-of-emergency warnings, city officials would be wise to refocus their attention on the needs of a city that's been in a perpetual state of emergency for years now.

Because amid the rubble of charred belongings and water-logged memories lie the spirits of the people - the small-business owners, the steelworkers, the children, the everyday residents - who make up the population of more than 11,000.

And right now, spirits are smoldering. It's going to take way more than cleaned-up porches and motion-detector lights to make sure these hard-working folks don't completely burn out on the place they've called home for generations.

"The reward money's not important," declares George McCarrahen, his eyes narrowed into angry blue slits. "I'd rather catch the people who did this. Tie them to a post and burn them up. Let them explain to their kids why they can't sleep in their own beds and play with their own Playstations."

Revenge is what city officials have warned against. Still, you can't help but empathize with McCarrahen.

The 300 block of Fleetwood Street was where his friends lived. Which was why he waited in the cold for anybody to return, just so he could lend a hand.

"If they need me to help them move anything, I'm there," he said.

The mechanic knows how important neighbors are in times of need. Two years ago, McCarrahen and co-worker Steve Flinn, 52, had to evacuate after the garage where they worked - right across the street from the rowhouses - burned down.

(Three were charged, but investigators are still trying to determine if any of the fires are related.)

Working together

"These people," McCarrahen says, pointing to the string of gutted-out rowhouses, "stood in the cold for 10 hours with us making sure we had something to eat, to help us get warm, if we needed to use the bathroom. . . .

"Me and Steve, we've probably fixed every bike for every kid on this street. It's like a family here."

A family whose members include all races, ethnicities and ages.

A family of blue-collar Democrats who live in a once-booming steel town that is now the poorest municipality in Chester County - where 22 percent now live below the poverty line.

At the same time, its members include well-to-do professionals who are eager to do their part.

Up near the reservoir, where homes sit on multi-acre tracts, the Coatesville Country Club - a private golf and dining club with almost 300 members - has offered itself up as a receiving hub for the fire victims.

"We're all a community. What affects one affects us all," club manager Laura DelPercio says.

With hundreds signing up for community watch, Coatesville is struggling to rise from the ashes. Not surprising, because that's what communities do when tragedies happen.

The trick is to try to sustain it in a city in financial despair.

Which will be hard to do, given Coatesville's notorious inability to run its government. Where the city manager was slapped with a DUI and the police chief isn't even certified to carry a gun. Where members of the City Council argue over prayer when they should be figuring out city renewal.

"I hope this will open our eyes to what the city needs," says Tyrone Harvey, owner of T's Automotive on Fleetwood Street, just down the block from the destruction. "Because it's not just about the fires."