A fire that destroyed a series of row houses on Woodlawn Avenue this summer was deliberately set, police said in a news conference Tuesday.
After three months of investigating the July 28 fire, which displaced more than 30 residents, Assistant Police Chief John Catone said natural, accidental and undetermined reasons were ruled out as possible causes of the early morning fire. “In layman’s terms, it is arson,” he said.
The investigation by police and fire departments has consisted of reviewing more than 600 photos and 90 minutes of video footage, multiple interviews with residents, analysis of evidence by the state police and picking through rubble by hand. But it was the investigative effort within 24 hours of the fire that led officials to identify a person of interest, a fact that was not revealed until Tuesday.
“By mid-afternoon [on the day of the fire, investigators] had developed some information, from someone who was known to us, that there was possibly someone involved in setting this building on fire,” Catone said. That information helped secure a search warrant for a house, shed and vehicle in Wilton, which were searched around 1 a.m. the day after the fire, about 21 hours after it broke out.
Catone wouldn’t comment on what was found in the search, what investigators were looking for and who was the target of the search. He did say the person, who is still in the area, is now considered a person of interest, but stopped short of calling the person a suspect.
Following the development, he said, a specially trained dog was brought in to go through the rubble and evidence secured through the search warrant, which resulted in “positive hits.”
Investigators also suspect the fire was caused by arson because of evidence analyzed by state police that yielded positive results for ignitable liquids. Catone wouldn’t say whether that evidence was secured from the crime scene or through the search warrant.
Asked if any other location was searched in the investigation, he said: “We have looked for some different stuff. But I’m not going to get into what we looked for or where we looked for it.”
Catone said investigators won’t make an arrest until they feel their case is strong enough to guarantee a conviction. “If we wanted to just run out and make an arrest, we could probably do that,” he said.
Catone said Bob Israel, owner of the destroyed brownstones, has been very helpful and is not a suspect.
Demolition of the houses, which run from 100 to 108 Woodlawn Ave., is expected to continue until the end of the year. Residents who were displaced by the fire, including 16 who were home when the flames broke out, have all found new homes.
Catone said all involved were lucky the fire resulted only in property damage.
If the girls living in the basement, who called 911 at 4:04 a.m. when they saw the fire, hadn’t been up late texting instead of sleeping, they could have died, police said. Also, if fire department commanders hadn’t decided to pull the firefighters out of the building, they could have died when the flames intensified and the building started to collapse. Firefighters instead suffered a few cases of exhaustion.
Catone also attempted to put to rest rumors that the blaze began as an electrical fire. He said the outside electrical panels were complete and intact, and the wiring of the house appeared to be safe. Also, the path the flames took — eating up the entire backside of the buildings, but not the front — led investigators to discount the possibility of an electrical fire.
“We knew there was more to this,” Catone said.
Going through the rubble and inspecting pictures from the morning of the fire, investigators have identified multiple points of origin for the blaze, including a common hallway shared by two buildings and a back porch. Both were accessible without keys. They suspect there was a third starting point but declined to elaborate.
Almost 100 firefighters and 15 fire trucks responded to the blaze, which took about five hours to control.