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Local 740 Arson Fires
Updated On: Aug 27, 2008

Police arrest a 19-year-old man after 10 cars are set afire on the peninsula.

Veteran firefighters say they never before had responded to fires that were set faster than they could be put out.

By DAVID HENCH and DIETER BRADBURY, Staff Writers April 12, 2008


Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer
Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer
A police officer interviews Lucy Weed, the owner of a Honda Civic, seen in the background, that was set on fire early Friday morning in Portland.
Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer
Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer
Firefighters and investigators look over cars at a Portland impound lot Friday. The cars were set on fire early Friday morning on the peninsula.

A 19-year-old man will be in court Monday to face charges related to a destructive wave of car fires that had firefighters and police swarming over the city's peninsula before dawn Friday.

Firefighters scrambled to put out fires even as new ones were igniting on nearby streets, leading police to stop and question anyone who was anywhere near the fires.

That tactic apparently paid off when Sgt. John Nueslein stopped Thomas Cassidy walking at Pleasant and South streets, not far from one of the last fires to spring up.

Witness statements and items Cassidy was carrying tied him to the fire in a car at 68 Pleasant St. that was reported just a few minutes earlier, Police Chief Tim Burton said. Cassidy also was charged with burglary to a car and carrying two concealed weapons.

In addition to 10 car fires called in over two hours, police learned that at least nine cars had been broken into or vandalized along a similar route as the fires.

The car fires ignited three buildings, leading hastily roused residents to evacuate.

"We were very fortunate this morning in that no one was seriously injured or killed," Burton said, praising the swift work of firefighters.

Burton said he could not be sure of Cassidy's motive and that the vehicles he targeted appeared to be random.

Burton said police believe the fires were started with an accelerant, which is usually something like gasoline.Police were intentionally withholding details, including a description of Cassidy, because each of the car fires represents a separate crime and a distinct crime scene and they did not want to taint witnesses' recollections. He acknowledged that Cassidy is a suspect in the other fires.

Anyone with information is urged to call the detectives division at 874-8596.Investigators with the state Fire Marshal's Office and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms joined Portland's fire investigators to search the burned-out vehicles for clues.Police said they know little about Cassidy, including his home address."As near as we can tell right now, he tended to float," Burton said, noting that Cassidy recently was staying with friends.

Cassidy has no adult criminal record, but was convicted of crimes as a youth; that history is sealed from public view. None of the convictions was for felonies. Cassidy is being held at the Cumberland County Jail on $250,000 cash bail.

The first fire call Friday was the worst.A raging fire inside a Honda Civic ignited a six-unit apartment building two feet away about 4 a.m. The building at 141 Sherman St., near Deering Avenue, was heavily damaged, and residents will not be able to return immediately.


"We could have lost people in that one," Deputy Police Chief William Ridge said. Leah Rogers, who lives on the second floor with her 18-year-old daughter, a friend and his 6-year-old son, heard the Honda's windows popping and saw light flickering in the apartment window.

"Then the car just went 'pow' and it blew up and the flames just came right up the side of the house," she said.Rogers and her friend and his son pounded on doors as they made their way downstairs through a strong sulfur-like smell. Outside, they met a police officer who directed firefighters inside to help Rogers' daughter get out.


Lucy Weed, who owns the Honda and lives next door on the third floor of 139 Sherman St., said the sound of a car horn woke her up in the darkness."I opened my eyes and there was this light outside and I could hear the horn," said Weed, 21. "I looked out the window and saw the fire and called 911." Jake Pike, Weed's roommate, and Weed scooped up her cats and ran outside. On the sidewalk, Pike looked down Sherman Street and saw another car burning in a driveway about a block to the east, at 108 Sherman St. "That's when I knew someone was burning them," he said.

Police brought in a Metro bus to shelter residents from the early morning chill. Nearby, the Salvation Army dispensed blankets and socks for those who fled their homes in bare feet.

Among them was Rich Pickford, who woke to find a sport utility vehicle going up in flames. "I grabbed a couple buckets of water and threw it on, but it didn't do any good," he said. "The fire was hot and fast."

Police also evacuated apartment buildings at 108 and 112 Sherman St., which sustained minor damage from a burning car parked between them. A building at 443 Cumberland Ave. was singed by a burning car, Fire Chief Frederick LaMontagne said.

The series of fires was unlike anything even the city's veteran firefighters had seen.Deputy Fire Chief Michael Shutts was off duty when roused by the third-alarm page. As he pulled up to the scene of one fire, another was reported, and another. "We were at one fire and we would look up and see the next fire They were that close," Shutts said.

He said in 24 years he had never responded to one fire after another, knowing that someone was setting them more quickly than they could be put out.

While Westbrook and Falmouth fire crews covered Portland's fire stations, a South Portland engine was directed to one of the car fires. On its way, it reported passing another fire.Car fires can be put out easily, but when they spread to buildings, people's lives are endangered, said Deputy Chief Lawrence Libby.

Lt. Keith Gautreau was one of four firefighters sent to the roof of 141 Sherman St. to rip open sections that might be hiding smoldering hot spots. From there, as the eastern sky started to lighten toward day, they could see narrow columns of black smoke rising from the city.

"It was kind of a unique experience, being on the roof of a building on fire, looking at other columns of smoke," he said. The thin cylinders of smoke suggested other car fires, and its inky blackness meant a fire crew had yet to arrive, he said."At that point we were saying, 'Is this guy ever going to stop?' " Gautreau said.

The coming of dawn was a welcome sign, Shutts said. "When the sun's up, there's no way he's still going to be out there. The city is alive now, people are on the street. He'll get caught," Shutts said.

The third alarm summoned 10 off-duty firefighters and some off-duty command staff to complement the shift of 47 firefighters.

The car fires came just hours after LaMontagne and Burton held a news conference to discuss the impact of staff cuts in public safety.

LaMontagne said then that the Fire Department's priorities would remain protecting people and property, but that the department would be challenged by simultaneous incidents. He said Friday that the department would be able to respond to the fires much as it had, but said that type of episode would be a challenge for any city regardless of the size of its department.

Karl Ronhave stared at the burned-out husk of his brand new Toyota SUV, which he had owned for just two months.

He recalled waking to what sounded like an air-raid siren and then staring at the weird orange glow coming from the car's passenger compartment."I reached for my phone to call 911 and the engine exploded," he said. Flames climbed 10 feet in the air before firefighters, who already were in the neighborhood and responded within one minute, quickly doused the fire. Ronhave said he wasn't afraid. "I was just angry," he said. "I wish I found him myself," he said of the suspect, "but then I'd probably be in jail."

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: dhench@pressherald.com

PORTLAND — The man charged with setting fires around Portland's peninsula on Friday will be in court today to face charges that hold him responsible for a wave of a destructive car fires that had firefighters and police swarming over the city's peninsula before dawn Friday.

1389931-m.jpg
Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer
A police officer interviews Lucy Weed, the owner of a Honda Civic,
seen in the background, that was set on fire early Friday morning in Portland.
Thomas Cassidy, 19, spent the weekend in the Cumberland County Jail on 250,000 bail after his Friday arrest.

 

Firefighters early Friday morning scrambled to put out fires even as new ones were igniting on nearby streets, leading police to stop and question anyone who was anywhere near the fires.

Thomas Cassidy was walking at Pleasant and South streets, not far from one of the last fires to spring up, when Sgt. John Nueslein stopped him.

Witness statements and items Cassidy was carrying tied him to the fire in a car at 68 Pleasant St. that was reported just a few minutes earlier, Police Chief Tim Burton said. Cassidy also was charged with burglary to a car and carrying two concealed weapons.

In all, 10 car fires called were called in over two hours, nine cars were vandalized and the car fires ignited three buildings.

 

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