Slew of suspicious house fires keep students and City on edge

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It started at the foot of the staircase leading up to the second floor. A neighbor noticed the fire growing on 54 Cannon Street’s porch through the blinds on his window and ran out in his bare feet to help out.

Allison Hammons, senior at the College and downstairs resident, was awakened by a pounding at her door. She then woke up her roommate and ran out with their dog. While this was occurring, her neighbor had already emptied the fire extinguisher he had been trying to use, but by this time, the fire had already begun to spread up the porch and onto the second floor.

Not only were Hammons and her roommate living in the house; upstairs, there was another resident. Hammons said, “Fortunately, he woke up on his own, so I called 911 while he shimmied down a column to the ground. After that, there wasn’t much to do but watch.”

Charleston firefighters arrived on the scene and were able to put out the fire in about 10 minutes. But by this time, the fire had already done its damage.

Although the cause of the fire is still unknown, there are growing suspicions related to the fire that took place on July 28, the latest in a string of questionable fires. For the past decade, there have been 57 suspicious house fires in the area as of the July 28 incident, according to the Post and Courier.

These incidents are also seeming to get worse. In recent months during the summer, there have been four serious fires in student, off-campus residences. Two of them occurred on Rutledge Avenue and the other two on Cannon Street. In all cases, the fires originated on the first floor porch.

Investigators are still looking for clues. Recently, Arson Hotline has offered a $5,000 reward for information that might lead to the arrest and conviction of the individual or group responsible for the suspicious house fires. In addition, the City of Charleston has offered an additional $20,000, making a $25,000 award money total. Information given must be received through the Arson Hotline (1-800-92-ARSON).

Mark Ruppel, Public Information Officer for the Charleston Fire Department, said even students can help the investigators. He said, “Be vigilant and report all suspicious activities. Call 911 when any immediate concerns or provide tips through the Arson Hotline.”

There is also a 16-person task force, consisting of local and state agencies, working on trying to find the individual or group responsible for the questionable fires. Along with the task force, police and fire officials have been warning residents by even going door-to-door about potential fire hazards.

Such hazards may include furniture, such as couches or chairs, on porches. There have been a few cases where it appeared that a porch sofa was set on fire and pushed up against a stairway, causing the fire to spread and trap residents inside. Other fire safety tips include: moving trash cans away from the sides of the house, testing fire alarms monthly, having a fire extinguisher easily available and turning on porch lights. Many of the suspicious house fire cases involved easily accessible porches with no lights and combustible material present.

In addition to these precautions, Ruppel said students should have “a working smoke alarm, develop an escape plan and obtain escape ladders when bedrooms are above the first floor.”

Hammons said her advice to students is act quick. She said, “Call 911 first thing, even if the fire seems manageable at first. Fires can travel really quickly so just a few seconds can make a huge difference.”


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