COATESVILLE — The fire that severely damaged two adjacent houses on the 200 block of East Valley Road early Saturday morning was intentionally set, according to law enforcement officials.
No one was injured, although both houses were occupied at 1:30 a.m., when the fire was reported.
The arson-plagued Coatesville area hadn't seen any intentionally set house fires since Feb. 6, two weeks before two suspects were charged with a total of 10 of this year's arsons. Many residents had hoped the arrests of the two suspects — Roger Leon Barlow Jr., 19, of Downingtown, and Mark Gilliam, 20, of West Bradford — signaled that the arson crisis was over, but Saturday morning's arson has caused a new wave of fear.
The arson occurred the night after Barlow's preliminary hearing, at which he pleaded not guilty to all nine of the arson counts with which he is charged. An investigator testified that, during a Feb. 18 interrogation, he had confessed to starting nine arson fires, including the Jan. 24 fire that destroyed 15 row houses on the 300 block of Fleetwood Street.
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms special agent John Hageman, who serves as the spokesman for the Chester County Arson Task Force, which was set up earlier this year, said he was not yet willing to reveal whether the latest arson was started in a similar way to most of the more than 45 that the Coatesville area has seen since early 2008.
The arsonists have typically dragged plastic trash cans or other items found on properties to the side of houses and ignited those items, hoping that the fire would spread to the siding or travel through windows,
according to task force investigators.
Angel Ortega, who lived in one of the two houses damaged in the Saturday morning arson, said that someone dragged the two trashcans he keeps near his front sidewalk to a narrow pathway between his and his neighbor's house and set them on fire.
He said that, just before 1:30 a.m., he discovered the blaze.
"My girl woke me up and said she seen something glowing
," he said. "I got up, pulled open the drapes, and all I see is flames."
The fire was on the same side of his house as his staircase
, Ortega said. As he, his girlfriend, and their three children, 7, 5 and 4, went down the stairs, they felt the heat of the flames
, Ortega said.
"If my girl didn't wake up when she did — if we were in there five more minutes — there's no way we could've gotten out
. No way," Ortega said.
He said that the damage to his house, especially to its second story, is extensive.
"The whole upstairs is completely gone
," he said. "There's nothing up there. We just got all new furniture up there, and now it's all gone."
He said his daughter's bed was destroyed
, and that she probably would have been killed if she hadn't fallen asleep on the living room couch that night.
Ortega said that his landlord, Max Miller of Honey Brook, came to the scene of the fire immediately and has already set him and his family up in a new house.
"He's a real good landlord," Ortega said. "I've never met a landlord like him before."
Miller, who owns 16 properties in the city, said he also helped arrange for Ortega's new house to be furnished with some of the furniture that has been donated to benefit victims of the arson spree.
And Chertok's, a Coatesville furniture store, gave the family new mattresses, Miller said.
This is the second time this year that someone has set Ortega's house on fire.
According to Arson Task Force records, it first happened on Jan. 21.
On Saturday afternoon, Ortega pointed to a spot of charred siding next to his front door. Someone, he said, had put one of his lawn chairs there in January and set it on fire. But that fire went out before it could do significant damage.
That charred spot was small in comparison with the burn marks that covered almost an entire half of his house.
Law enforcement officials have ordered Coatesville residents remove flammable materials from the outdoor portions of their properties, and the city said it will fine people who don't comply. To help residents get rid of these items, Coatesville and other Chester County municipalities have run bulk trash pickups. But on Saturday afternoon, many properties along Valley Road still had furniture on their porches and debris on their lawns.
The 200 block of Valley Road is somewhat secluded, and it is in the city's west end, the site of the majority of the arsons.
Ortega's home and the other home that was damaged sit side by side, separated by the pathway where the arsonist apparently dragged the trashcans used to set both on fire.
On Saturday afternoon, the sides of the houses that face this walkway appeared charred and blackened.
In their small, fenced-in front yards lay burned, broken-up couches and torn-up insulation.
A musty, burning smell hung in the air.
A woman who refused to identify herself or speak to a reporter was going through the drawers of a desk that was on the front porch of the house next to Ortega's.