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 citizens of Coatesville started packing suitcases, which they left at their front doors in case they needed to escape. Children slept downstairs, and parents slept in shifts. Some kept loaded shotguns at hand, and talk of a vigilante group started to circulate.

, Harry Walker, doesn’t dabble in nonsense. He’s a former D.C. cop, born in Pittsburgh, and he knew when he took the job of leading Coatesville out of its long depression that it wouldn’t be easy.

On New Year’s Day 2009, he sat at his desk in his spartan office at City Hall, and looked forward to putting 2008 behind him. No community could lift itself out of trouble when people lived in fear of burning to death. Thankfully, though, police had nabbed Donkewicz, McWilliams and the teenager in quick succession. Surely the insanity would stop, now.

His mobile phone rang.

“Yes?” Walker said.

Fire chief Kevin Johnson had bad news. Terrible news. His crews weren’t battling a fire — they were battling three.

Walker hung up his phone, pushed his chair back from his desk, and dropped to his knees on the floor. “Dear God, please help us,” he cried. “Please help us catch whoever’s doing this. We can’t take any more. Just give this town some relief. “

Not long after, Fleetwood Street went up in flames.

climbed the ladder toward the top of the rowhouses, he watched the fire spurt from the two homes at the center of the block. Then he made one of the most difficult choices a firefighter can make: He sacrificed two homes, starting his work two doors west of the visible flames. If he worked closer to the fire, it might pass under the roof before he could stop it. Better to save the homes that he could.

He stepped onto the roof wearing about 70 pounds of gear, carrying a rotary saw and something called a Halligan tool, which resembles an enormous crowbar. He dropped to his knees, spun up the saw, and started cutting and hacking his way into the roof.

 Firefighters chop roofs to allow heat and smoke to escape up and out of a home. The typical vent — a “cut” — is four feet by four feet. But Tracey decided to make a “trench cut,” a four-foot-wide swath from the front wall of the structure all the way to the rear. It was backbreaking work, and as he cut, he saw flames start to lick up from the smoky darkness below. He had fought some big fires before — he won Officer of the Year in 2004, when Matt Juhas did his worst — but this fire loomed larger than them all.