Unsolved Arsons Hold Town Hostage

A recent rash of arson fires has terrorized Coatesville, Pa. residents. The southeast Pennsylvania town of about 10,000 people has had 18 fires this year, and when a blaze devoured 15 row houses last month, displacing dozens, city officials declared a state of emergency.

In an effort to thwart the arsonists, authorities will distribute about 800 motion-sensitive outdoor lights. About 200 of Coatesville's residents received the special lights at a city hall giveaway Monday.

Authorities have also stepped up patrols and called in federal and state police to help with forensics and profiling.

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"Whoever's doing this is demonstrating extremely risky behavior, dangerous actions and brazen," said Mark Potter, a special agent with the Philadelphia field division of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Tuesday brought the latest case to the distressed steel town. That, combined with the fires from 2008 that investigators labeled as arsons, brings the total number of blazes to more than 30. There have been no injuries.

The Chester County Arson Task Force is offering a reward of up to $20,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the arsons. But with few leads and police desperately hoping for a break, the blazes continue to paralyze residents.

One woman, who was afraid to be identified, said she and her children live in "constant fear."

"Me and my kids sleep together every night," she said. "We're afraid."

A Nighttime Prowler

The fires, which have occurred in a 1.5-square-mile area, have burned almost nightly of late in the city 35 miles west of Philadelphia. The homes have been set upon as residents sleep. Police are unsure whether a single assailant is setting the fires or if more than one person is involved.

"We just want to know why. Why would you want to put people out of their homes?" said arson victim Rick Bowman, whose house was destroyed Jan. 24. "I think the hardest thing was filling out papers to say we were homeless."

Children Live in Fear

The fires have been random, with 75 percent occurring between midnight and 6 a.m. The arsonists have set fire to items left on porches, and then have vanished within seconds.

The arsons have had a profound affect on Coatesville's smallest residents.

"Young children, elderly people — they are all living in fear," Pennsylvania state police Maj. Huascar Rivera said. "They are sleeping in shifts to ensure that someone is keeping an eye out."

Grade school children are writing to the police chief, and one child even sent a disturbing drawing.

"It's heartbreaking, because it depicts a house on fire," Coatesville Police Chief William Matthews said. "On the right [of the drawing], you can see this young person say, 'Help my family.'"

Another child said, "I'm scared, because I don't want it to happen to us."

Older residents are closely monitoring developments. "I don't know how people are going to pick up and recover from this," one resident said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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