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 town reeled. Certain public trusts are sacred, and their violators — a policeman who abuses a citizen, for example, or a daycare worker who molests a child — don’t merely call into question their own character or criminality. They tear the fabric that holds society together. Neighborhoods survive on fundamental trusts, including faith that the men selected to protect people from fires aren’t the same men who start them.

The city of Coatesville tried to soothe the bitterness by redirecting people’s attention from Tribbett to the best of its firefighting force. Shortly after Tribbett’s arrest, the city issued a formal proclamation to honor Ed Tracey, Bob’s grandfather and the founder of the Tracey firefighting legacy. He had started working on the force at age 16 and spent nearly seven decades serving in various roles at the department. “The Coatesville City Council extends their thanks and appreciation on behalf of all citizens of Coatesville to Mr. Edward Tracey,” the proclamation read, “and his family for his many years of dedication to our city.”

The fires subsided following Tribbett’s arrest. Coatesville breathed clean air again. But after just a couple of months, the arson resumed with renewed fury: Madison Street. Lincoln. Franklin. And then the worst finally happened: On Strode Avenue, someone set fire to the home of 83-year-old widow Irene Kempest. She had survived a Nazi work camp during the Second World War, but died from smoke inhalation when someone torched her home.

A couple of days later, authorities arrested 22-year-old George Donkewicz, who claimed that voices in his head demanded he set fires — he admitted setting multiple fires, according to police — and kill people. The town hardly had a chance to grasp this development before police, a few days later, arrested 23-year-old Leroy McWilliams. They accused McWilliams, who according to testimony had lived for a time in a tent and bathed in the Brandywine Creek, of setting five fires.

While police interviewed McWilliams — literally while they questioned him — they received word of a garage fire burning a few blocks away. Soon police arrested a 17-year-old boy — who was a junior firefighter — for setting that fire.

What the hell?

Fire seemed to be spreading not just through the town, investigators realized, but through the townspeople themselves. Some lone, mentally ill individual had started the first blaze, perhaps, but he had lit something inside numerous other residents — how many? — who followed with their own acts of destruction. The worst conflagrations roar forth from a tiny spark; what matters is the fuel they find along the way. And the people of Coatesville, it turned out, lived in a mental and emotional tinderbox.

The fire department released a statement with an unmistakable tone of desperation: “… remove any items from porches and leave front and rear porch lights on throughout the night. All residents are asked to report any suspicious subjects. … ”