If there was ever a doubt about the potentially life-saving role of St Augustine’s fire department and local law enforcement, Historic City News editor, Michael Gold, reports that this morning’s four arson cases downtown, all within a narrow time frame, should put those concerns to rest.
“The greatest risk to the lives and property of this city is fire,” Gold observed, while collecting information needed for this report. “Not that St Johns County Fire Rescue personnel and equipment are not capable, because they are. It is a simple matter of logistics; and, as with response times in medical and police emergencies, seconds lost getting to the scene of an active fire can make the difference between a successful outcome and a tragedy.”
Mark Samson, Public Information Officer for the St Augustine Police Department, reported to Historic City News that the first call came in to police at about 3:30 a.m. this morning from a citizen who observed smoke and a strong odor of burning wood. As of this report, there are no known injuries; either to civilians or firefighters.
“Each of the four locations is being treated as a crime scene,” Samson reported. “The Fire Marshal’s office is investigating the cause of the fires, however, police and firefighters have collected sufficient evidence to suspect arson.”
Lu Moore lives near the vacant Lincolnville home that appears to have been torched. She said she takes normal steps to secure her home, but that these fires makes her believe that she may need to step up her own security measures. “The heat and possibility of losing my home was horrific,” Moore said in her on camera interview.
Sources close to the investigation indicated that there are similarities in the fires — each targeted an unoccupied building, the fires began in the rear of each structure, and there is evidence that an accelerant was used.
There are unconfirmed reports of tires slashed near one of the fire scenes, suggesting, if they are related, that at least one motivation may have been vandalism.
Other evidence believed to have been discovered, indicates a more sinister motive. Inside the investigation, Historic City News reporters learned that the arsonist surrounded a pile of leaves with bricks, creating a fire pit. It appears that an accelerant was poured on the leaves. If confirmed as the source of the fire that burned the building, the ignition was provided by a lighted candle which appears to have been pulled into the flammable pit from a safe distance using a string.
“We had two fires on Cordova Street, one on Saragossa Street, and one on Park Place,” Samson told Historic City News during an interview this morning. “There was damage to surrounding homes in a couple of cases.”
The fire sequence appears to be:
45 Cordova Street, partial collapse of the building, took about 15 minutes to control.
Three minutes after the first report, a second 911 call led firefighters to a blaze at an unoccupied two-story home at 17 Saragossa Street, took only a few minutes to extinguish the flames.
A third fire erupted about 4:45 a.m. in a vacant home at 85 Park Place in Lincolnville.
The fire destroyed the home and damaged two other neighboring homes, including one that had been renovated and was for sale, Samson said.
A fourth fire was reported about 6 a.m. at 34 Cordova St. by a St. Augustine police officer who saw a burning aerosol can and quickly had the flames extinguished. No damage occurred.
The Chocolate Turtle on Cordova Street has only been open a couple of months following major renovations to their building, which included the use of fire resistant exterior shingles instead of the original shingles. That decision was made by Len Weeks, according to Laura Highsmith in a televised interview this morning. Highsmith says that she wanted to use the original wooden shingles but is glad now that she followed Weeks’ advice. She is sure that there would have been nothing left of her building had she done otherwise.
The local Fire Marshal, the State Fire Marshal and St Augustine Police Department are continuing their cooperative investigations. Samson said that, although county fire-rescue provided assistance, the St Johns County Sheriff’s Office was not called to assist in the investigation, nor was FDLE, to his knowledge. The Federal Bureau of Investigation may be called in to assist; depending on the relationships learned between the incidents and the identities of those involved, and as a motive becomes clearer.