Coatesville Fires: The Town That Burned Itself Down

For 18 months, Chester County’s Coatesville, once a thriving steel-industry town, was besieged by fire after fire — set by the residents themselves. A shocking mystery unraveled

ON THE NIGHT of January 24th last year, Coatesville firefighter Bob Tracey got the call: fire on Fleetwood Street, size unknown. He pulled on his boots and rushed out the front door of his home, glad he lived just a few blocks from the firehouse. He often showed up first, even for little one-alarm fires.

On this night, though, he saw that a crew had already hustled from the station in a fire truck. And the radio traffic seemed more frantic than usual: Two alarms. Three alarms. What on earth was happening over on Fleetwood? Tracey pulled on his gear — his “turnout,” as firefighters say — and, when no one else showed up by the time he dressed, hopped into the driver’s seat of a ladder truck: He’d go alone on a second truck. He fired up the engine and pulled onto Strode Avenue.

As Tracey drove, he let his eyes flick across the sky, looking for the column of smoke. And he wondered: How many times had he done this in the past year? Whispers among firefighters had started as early as 2007, when they noticed an uptick in the number of arsons in town. Small stuff, at first. Trash fires, uninhabited buildings. Then, in 2008, the perpetrator moved on to garages, and finally the unthinkable: occupied homes. The fires also increased in frequency. In a year and a half, someone ignited about 80 fires in and around Coatesville, a town set on just one and a half square miles. Home to 11,000 people, plus the devil himself: Fires sprang up at night, set by an invisible hand that left no clues and followed no pattern. Black victims, white victims, Hispanic victims. Poor people and rich people. A pensioner. A city councilwoman. And the duty of saving each of them landed hard on the shoulders of men like Bob Tracey, a third-generation Coatesville firefighter.

As seconds passed, trucks from Coatesville’s second firehouse honked and screamed their way toward Fleetwood Street. One police officer pulled his cruiser to a stop along the way when he saw a small fire burning in a trash can. He grabbed a fire extinguisher from his car, put out the fire, then kept rolling toward Fleetwood Street. That’s the way people lived in Coatesville now: putting out fires on their way to bigger fires.

When Tracey arrived at Fleetwood Street, he swept the scene with the special vision of veteran firefighters. He took in the long row of homes, all adjoining, and all built many years before city codes required firewalls between dwellings. He saw two other fire trucks packed into the narrow street, cranking water in an arc toward the two homes at the center of the block. He saw flames bursting from the homes, and his colleagues pulling residents from the structures. The pieces of this scene tumbled into place, in Tracey’s mind, and prioritized themselves: Save the people. Stop the fire. Save the property.