Growth of Arson Rooted in Skewed Compulsions, Greed

Associated Press

In Detroit last Halloween, firefighters faced over 400 fires started in trash cans and vacant buildings, a fiery tradition that has become known in the Motor City as "Devil's Night."

In Boston this year, a 28-year-old man who showed up at fires in a red station wagon and dressed as a fire chief, pleaded guilty to leading a band of arsonists in what the prosecution called "a massive conspiracy to burn down the city of Boston."

In Chicago this year two firefighters were arrested at the site of buildings they were to torch for profit. In New York someone unknown set fire to a linen closet on the third floor of Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center and the black smoke billowing through the ventilation ducts forced the evacuation of 28 infants and premature babies from the 12th floor intensive care unit.

Arson is said to cause more deaths in America than all natural disasters combined. It takes a thousand lives a year, injures another 15,000, destroys $1.8 billion worth of property, and rings up a $15- billion annual loss nationally, including $3 billion in insurance.

Points to Grim Picture

Former New York Fire Commissioner Charles J. Hynes pointed up the grim picture:

"Arson has been growing at an alarming rate over the last decade. During the period, incidents of arson have quadrupled and the dollar loss over the same period has increased tenfold."

Arson accounts for a quarter of all fires and if it continues to grow at its present pace, the annual loss could come to $89 billion by 1986, not to mention the loss of life.

In Boston alone, officials estimate that 282 persons, including 65 firefighters were hurt in more than 200 fires that caused at least $22 million in property damage from 1981 to 1983 when an arson ring was operating.

Arson in its nature is difficult to investigate. Fire marshals rely on questioning eyewitnesses, especially the person who turns in the alarm, on where the fire was first spotted. Later they look for any signs of flammable liquids or other accelerators, separate fires, rigged electrical systems or heating units that have been tampered with.

Not Much to Go On

Often there is not much to go on and arson statistics therefore are not ironclad. No one knows for sure how many arsons go undetected. But all experts agree on certain common denominators.

For instance, the profile of the most common fire-starter:

A male child or juvenile, fascinated by flame, curious. He may or may not be disturbed. He may be playing with matches, or he may be using fire to strike out from the aggravations of childhood. In a "Psychology Today" article on juvenile fire-starters, sociologist Wayne S. Wooden said that children are responsible for two out of five arson cases and the culprits are disproportionately white and middle-class.

New York Deputy Chief Tom Sweetman rattles off the list: "Innocent curiosity, experimenting kids, lighters, matches, candles, kids at home alone. Just recently we lost three kids out in Queens. It was a lighter. They had been playing with it, even though their father had told them not to."

Left alone when their mother locked them in while she went to the neighborhood laundry, "They found the lighter and set the bedroom on fire. There wasn't 10 cents worth of fire. They died of smoke."

At least 50% of all incendiary fires are the work, wittingly or unwittingly, of juveniles. The percentage may be far higher, as much as 90%, some experts say. Ironically, some of these youngsters say they want to grow up to be firemen.

Now cities from Texas to California are making efforts to recognize, educate and treat the juvenile fire-setter, and to teach juveniles in general about the fickle behavior of fire.

No major American city has escaped the devastation of arson. New York, Detroit, Boston, Miami, Chicago have seen whole neighborhoods blighted and burned by the torch. Oddly, many cities are only now recognizing that arson is a special crime, requiring special techniques of investigation and detection.

New York boasts the nation's oldest fire marshal's office, dating back to 1854 when a reporter for the New York Herald pondered a string of fires of suspicious origin and was named the city's first fire marshal.

300 on Arson Squad

The fire marshal's office has been beefed up to 300. The city continues to be plagued by arson, although there has been a significant drop--from 6,085 confirmed arson fires in 1983 to 4,367 in 1984--while incendiary fires are increasing elsewhere in the nation.

The city is making the fire marshal a highly visible street figure, not unlike the marshal of the Old West. Half the fire marshal force works out of mobile headquarters, 60-foot trailers painted white and placed prominently in neighborhoods and plazas in Harlem, the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn.

The marshals are called the Red Caps for the baseball-type billed hats they wear for identification at the scenes of fires, as distinctive as their white cars that prowl the neighborhoods.

They have proved successful, both for prodding citizen awareness and for gathering information on local fire-setters. "People come in here and say 'There's a crazy guy who lives on the corner and he's got a can of gasoline,"' one Red Cap said. "It works both in prevention and in investigation."

Adolescents Hired

Sometimes adults use adolescents to start fires, often with tragic results. Sweetman remembers a couple of landlords in Brooklyn who were hiring 14- and 16-year-olds to torch their empty buildings to collect insurance. Not very knowledgeable of the effects of gasoline, the kids sometimes got caught in their own fires.

Sweetman remembers interviewing one in a hospital, burned head to foot. He had torched a renovated apartment. The superintendent who had done the renovation wanted to get even with the landlord who had not paid him enough. The youngster died.

Firefighters are unanimous in despising malicious arson, "a crime of stealth and cowardice."

"It's not the type of crime you share with a friend," says Fire Marshal Chief John Regan. In the hierarchy of crime, the arsonist is just a cut above the child-abuser, he says.

Most fires are not set for profit. Often the motive is revenge. Fires set in closets and beds, for example, suggest a jealous lover. Such things can be clues for the investigators.

Social Club Set Afire

The worst recorded arson in New York was the firing of a social club in the Bronx in 1976 by a young man who had had a falling out with his girlfriend.

She was dancing with someone else at the club. The young man picked up three young companions and a gallon container of gasoline. He spilled it on the stairway. One of his companions tossed a match.

"That night was a night of revenge," says Regan. The girl and 24 others died.

"When they put him in prison, they had to isolate him," Regan recalls, because half the inmates knew someone in that social club.

"People who set fires are very often ignorant of fire," says Tom Sweetman. "They don't understand what they are dealing with. In the social club fire, I don't think that fellow thought he was going to kill 25 people."

Professionals Careful

Indeed, the fire marshals say, those who are professional, or set fires for profit, are more careful to spare lives. "A professional arsonist would try not to kill anybody."

Chief Regan once eavesdropped on a building owner talking to a would-be arsonist and heard him say, "Listen, make sure the building is empty because I don't want anybody killed. All I want is my money."

It is a considered, planned act. "That's why the professional torch is so good at his trade. He'll bring a building down, and then finding the cause and origin of the fire is very difficult."

Whatever the cause, the effects are always clear. As the white marshals' car patrols past the shell of buildings in a ravaged section of the Bronx, Sweetman points to a row of burned-out stores.

"When those stores went, the neighborhood went," he says. "A store owner may have just intended to burn his own establishment, but it took the whole block with it, and the neighborhood as well."

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