A pocket of Coatesville's West End reeled yesterday after eight residents narrowly escaped a fast-moving fire set between two single houses, the city's 20th arson this year.
"Here we go again," said Bob Moratelli, who lives several doors from the two houses destroyed in the 200 block of Valley Road.
Neighbors said they were tired of being awakened by sirens and the distinctive popping of burning vinyl siding. Since February 2008, 68 arsons have racked the Coatesville area.
"That comfort zone's back on red alert - after it had just gone down to orange," resident Mike Zuratt said.
His home, a few doors away, was set ablaze Feb. 4, 2008. Also within view is a house that burned shortly before Christmas in Valley Township.
To date, six arson defendants are in custody, charged with setting 22 fires in and near Coatesville. None has been charged with either fire in the Valley Road vicinity.
"I can't help but wonder if the original arsonist is still out there," Zuratt said, adding that three attempted arsons had also occurred in his neighborhood.
John Hageman, spokesman for the Chester County Arson Task Force, said investigators had no comment on links among any of the fires.
"The investigation is ongoing, and we're looking into whoever's responsible for all of the arsons," Hageman said.
Angel Ortega, one of yesterday's victims, said he was awakened about 1:30 a.m. by his wife, Carmen, who said she saw something glowing.
"I went to the window and saw nothing but flames," said Ortega, adding that his family, including three children ages 4 to 7, had made it down the stairs and out the front door "just in time."
Tony Rosciolo, who lives two doors away, said firefighters had contained the blaze minutes before it would have spread to six other houses that are separated by narrow passageways. "This could have easily turned into another Fleetwood," Rosciolo said, referring to the Jan. 24 blaze, which gutted 15 rowhouses.
Among those charged is Roger L. Barlow of Downingtown, who on Friday was ordered held for trial on nine counts of arson. Other suspects include a volunteer firefighter, a homeless man, and a runaway. They range in age from 18 to 25. Yesterday's threat was enough to panic two female residents in their 80s. One was treated by ambulance personnel, and the other was taken to a hospital for a couple of hours, Rosciolo said.
Ortega, who said someone had tried to set his front porch on fire in January, said he was counting his blessings. "We're just lucky we made it out safely," he said, surveying the wreckage of his family's possessions, including newly purchased bedding and furniture.
Coatesville, a former steel town of about 11,600 residents, has been under a state of emergency since the Fleetwood Street fire. Yesterday morning's blaze was the first arson since Feb. 22, when fire caused $400,000 in damage to seven buses parked near North Brandywine Middle School off Reeceville Road.
"I know investigators are working hard," Rosciolo said. "I hope they realize there have been five attempts on this little street."