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

Meanwhile, on the eastern end of the block, the fire rushed through each old house with terrifying speed. Old homes with plaster walls make perfect fuel; over decades, as residents hammer nails into the plaster, and as hidden cracks spread, voids form inside that allow the fire to leap from one air pocket to another. A fire doubles its size roughly every 60 seconds; the Fleetwood Street fire hit four alarms, then five. Six. Seven. Eight. That brought in all Coatesville’s trucks, others from neighboring boroughs, and finally units from Montgomery County.

One hundred fifty firefighters spent most of the night battling the fire, and in the end, almost all the rowhouses burned — all those except the westernmost ones, protected by Tracey’s trench cut. The fire did millions of dollars in damage, and left 14 families — 50 people — standing in the street with nowhere to go, on a night so cold the fire hoses stuck to the asphalt, frozen in place.

After that fire on January 24, 2009, city manager Harry Walker declared a state of emergency in Coatesville. The city instituted a curfew, brought in state and federal arson experts, and spent money like next year’s budget didn’t matter. And it didn’t, because at this rate, the town would burn to the ground before next year arrived. Since then, the City Council has placed Walker on administrative leave after questions arose about his handling of the city’s finances, and the FBI has seized files from his office; the result of an audit is pending. But at the time, the city distributed hundreds of motion–sensitive porch lights, and warned citizens to stay at their windows, watching for anyone lurking in the dark. Walker started driving the streets at night, peering into alleys and dark corners. “If there was ever an emergency situation,” he says, “we were in the middle of it.”

The maneuvers paid off a few weeks later when authorities arrested 19-year-old Roger Barlow, whom they accused of setting at least nine fires and described as a “classic pyromaniac.” The next day, on February 20th, police picked up 19-year-old Mark Gilliam of West Bradford, who — in the first sign of any connection between suspects — had met Barlow a couple of weeks before at the Happy Days restaurant outside Coatesville. Later that night, Gilliam set fire to the restaurant, police say, and then showed up to help put out the fire, because he — almost unsurprisingly, now — wanted to work as a fireman. Investigators say he had outfitted his car with illegal strobe lights so he appeared to be a firefighter, and that at his home they found a bottle of Pyrodex, an explosive black powder, hidden in a fireman’s boot.

Once again, Coatesville breathed a sigh.