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

The next day, after much anguish, Tracey signed the deal. He pleaded guilty to one count of arson and one count of attempted arson. When he appeared in court, Judge Anthony Sarcione looked at the prosecutor with incredulity. “I’m having a hard time swallowing it,” he said. Why not go forward with the trial? Why not put this guy away?

Too risky, assistant district attorney Thomas Ost-Prisco said. And at least with a conviction, Tracey could never again enter a firehouse.

The judge reluctantly agreed, sentencing Tracey to time served and eight years’ probation, and the ex-fireman, probably the most hated man in Coatesville, went home.

THERE’S A FIRE helmet hanging in the hallway at Bob Tracey’s apartment, and a dozen more in the closet. There’s a wooden firefighter nutcracker standing on the console television, and a small Santa riding a North Pole fire truck. A ceramic Dalmatian curled on the floor. Photos of Tracey in a crisp dress uniform. Newspaper clips. Toy trucks. On and on, the accumulated stuff of a third-generation fireman.

“It’s my life,” Tracey says, walking through his living room. “It’s all I have.”

His eight-year-old son follows him through the house and chirps, “I’m going to be a fireman too, Daddy.”

At his kitchen table, Tracey slumps into a seat with a pad of paper. He’s been up nights, and sometimes it helps him to scratch out his thoughts. But now he casts the notebook aside. “Screw it. Let’s talk,” he says.

The town was different when he was a small boy, Tracey says. He recalls snatches of happiness before the big collapse, before everything turned. After a while, it’s hard to tell where municipal history ends and his own history begins.

As a child, he endured a terrible relationship with his father, he says. His father, representing the second generation of the town’s well-known firefighting dynasty. Hero in public. Something else in private. So after someone offered Tracey a whiff of cocaine at 14, he never looked back. He’s 37 now.

“Yeah,” he says. “Long time.”