PHILADELPHIA – On the latest block ravaged by Coatesville, Pa.’s plague of unsolved arsons, former residents grimly trudged through 15 charred homes Monday before boarding up the windows.

They salvaged what they could from rowhouses ruined Sunday by fire, smoke and water, packing their lives into relatives’ cars through a frigid afternoon and mulling suddenly bleak futures.

Pausing, they assembled to look blankly up at the scorched brick buildings and discuss homespun theories about who might have set the latest in a string of 14 unexplained Coatesville fires since Jan. 1. Grasping to explain the cause of their misery, they guessed about gang members, immigrants, disaffected firefighters and various others.

“I don’t know what happened. I just know I’m homeless,” said Tina Thomas, 38, on the porch of her Fleetwood Street home of 20 years.

Across the state, officials puzzled over the same problem Monday.

Facing national attention over the ongoing string of fires, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell sent State Police Commissioner Frank E. Pawlowski to meet with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Coatesville officials and Chester County prosecutors.

In a normal year, Coatesville – with a population of 11,614, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau population estimate – sees one or two arsons.

But the last year-and-a-half has been far from normal. The city counted 15 arsons in 2008, including one on Dec. 7 that killed 83-year-old Irene Kempest, a Nazi work camp survivor. Three people were arrested – one for the fire that took Kempest’s life and two for other arsons. All three remain in custody, but that has not halted the flames.

Coatesville Police Chief William Matthews said federal, state and local agencies have begun “a full-court press” to stop the fires, which have all been set by night at seemingly random places with little light and easy access. Matthews said a curfew has been discussed, “persons of interest” have been interviewed and lingering suspicions that gang members set the fires are being explored.

“All rumors are being actively investigated,” Matthews said.

Without news that the arsons have been solved, however, even Coatesville residents whose neighborhoods have not been set afire expressed nervousness.

“I’m too scared to go to sleep at night,” said Dee White, 49, who lives several blocks away from the Fleetwood Street block that burned Saturday.

White and others said they got little comfort from officials’ instructions to leave lights on and keep rubbish that could fuel fires away from easily accessed areas.

“It’s just chaos,” said Jamar Ricts, 27, a landscaper whose undamaged home sits yards away from the 15 that burned over the weekend.

He said he looks forward to March, when his lease is up and he can move his wife and two children out of Coatesville.

“We’ve been sleeping downstairs, clothes on and everything,” Ricts said. “We’ll probably go to a relative’s house now, until March.”

Up the block, Frank Thomas, 21 and no relation to Tina, said he’s also moving – to Milwaukee where he formerly lived. The musician and student had lived in a house with five relatives, sleeping in a converted living room now littered with fire debris.

His Fleetwood Street block, even before the fire, was among the old steel town’s most weathered areas. A textile warehouse abuts the scorched homes, which sit less than 50 yards from railroad tracks. One block away is an abandoned train station. Across the street is a garage that burned in 2007 and never reopened.

The city’s anger over the wanton destruction of the fires is palpable, Frank Thomas said.

“It’s hard to strike fear into Coatesville, it really is,” he said. “This place has seen its share of tough times.”

On a different porch, George McCarraher, 36, said the arsons have mainly made a bad situation worse. He is a mechanic, but said he has been unable to find steady work in Coatesville since the Fleetwood Street garage burned. McCarraher, who lives in another part of town, turned up on the scorched block Monday to help old friends haul away a few belongings. There, he listened to the speculation over the possible culprits and contemplated justice for the destruction that lay before him.

“I’m an eye-for-an-eye guy,” McCarraher said. “I think that when we find these people who did this, we should get them all together and set fire to their homes, to let them see how it feels when your life goes through this.”

A stream of residents converged on Coatesville City Hall yesterday to sign up as volunteers for a block-watch program. One of them, Tyrone Harley, said anger and blame are unproductive in the wake of such tragedy.

“I would have rather seen my business burn than see those people lose their homes,” said Harley, who runs T’s Automotive at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Fleetwood Street. “I know all of these people. It was devastating.”

Harley said he believes the stepped-up law-enforcement effort will prevent further tragedies, at least temporarily, but he said he hoped neighboring townships were on alert in case the criminals moved outside the city.

“Between the robberies and the murders and now these arsons, you’re always on edge,” Harley said. “I used to work in my shop until midnight. Now I get out of there by 6.”


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