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

In so many ways, the noblest aspect of Bob Tracey’s tormented life — what connected him to his father, and to his town — was fire. When he dragged a man from a house fire, no one asked about Tracey’s childhood, or addiction. People cheered. They put his picture in the paper. They named him Officer of the Year.
Tracey is wiry, and stays in constant motion. He wears t-shirts with motorcycle logos, and has grown a beard since his arrest. He says he felt pressured to admit setting the fires, and now disavows the guilty plea. “I regret it,” he says. “I regret it more than anything in my life.”

According to the attorney who prosecuted Tracey, there hasn’t been another arson in the city since the former fire captain’s arrest. Tracey wears an electronic ankle bracelet that signals his location to authorities, and several days a week attends classes for drug recovery. And maybe he is sick. But in a larger sense, if he did set the fires, there’s little wonder in it. The progeny of fire — familial, communal, mental — beget fire. The son of a self-destructive town destroys himself, and along the way has a hand in destroying the town as well.