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


On March 20, 2009, someone set two fires several blocks apart in the town’s West End. Firefighters worked fast, so the fires never spread — just a porch swing and trash can — but the old fear sprang to life once again. Many, many fires remained unsolved, after all.

 Investigators struggled, grasping to understand: As fast as they could lock up the arsonists, new ones leaped into action. How could so many people lose their minds at the same time?

A couple of days later, Bob Tracey received a call from his friend John Clifford, a state arson investigator. They needed his help sorting through this mess. Could Bob lend a hand?

“Sure,” Tracey said. “I’ll be right down.”

He met Clifford at the police station, where about 10 minutes into the discussion, the questioning took a turn. Investigators didn’t want Tracey’s help at all. They wanted his arrest.

Where were you the night of these latest fires? the police asked. Where did you go?

A man in Tracey’s neighborhood had been sitting in his truck when he saw a man in a black hooded sweatshirt retreat behind a neighbor’s house. When the man emerged, an orange glow swelled behind him. The man in the truck flicked on his headlights and saw the suspect’s face: Bob Tracey. Another witness saw him a moment later, and recognized his distinctive walk: Bob Tracey.

The accusation followed a horrific but undeniable logic: In a town consumed with fire and its own civic destruction, a third-generation firefighter — born into the tradition of ruin, steeped in its ways, raised by its callused hand — wasn’t the least likely suspect. He was the perfect suspect.
At first, Tracey resisted. Then, about an hour into the questioning, he broke some news: He had a drug problem. Cocaine. And on the night of the two new fires, he had walked down to his dealer’s house after curfew to score coke. They could find the baggie in his dresser drawer.

Fine, said Clifford. Tell you what: Come back in the morning for a lie detector test.

The next day, Tracey arrived for the test, which was inconclusive, and a few hours later landed in Chester County prison. Charged with setting two fires, he spent the next 242 days in a nine-by-12-foot cell, kept isolated for his own safety. Other prisoners, when they saw him, let him know what to expect if they ever found him alone. Firebug.

On day number 241, Tracey says, his lawyer arrived at the prison with a document outlining a plea deal. “You can be home tomorrow,” the lawyer said, according to Tracey. “You can be with your family.”

“I can’t do this,” Tracey told him.

“Then you’re an idiot,” the lawyer said, according to Tracey. If he lost the case, the disgraced fireman could face 20 years in prison. If not more.