Devil’s Night '96

Joseph Louderback discusses “Mischief Night” in Camden, NJ, and “Devil’s Night” in Detroit, and how the efforts of residents and firefighters are helping to decrease the number of pre-Halloween arson fires.


The glow of pre-Halloween arson fires dimmed considerably over previous years in Camden, NJ, and Detroit but firefighters still saw plenty of action. Adopt-A-Block programs, where residents surveil nearby structures, neighborhood patrols and strict "zero tolerance" curfews supplemented months of...


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Camden's traditionally depressed nature forces ally draining preventative actions to the back burner. Under the direction of Chief Fire Marshal Herbert Leary, investigators check vacant buildings 24 to 48 hours prior to Mischief Night for stockpiles of accelerants. That continues throughout the target date as teams aggressively search abandoned dwellings, watch for suspicious activity and patrol trouble areas. Work crews begin sealing the first level of vacant structures at the beginning of October.

"We have 3,000 vacants," Marini said. Camden does not seal structurally deficient buildings for safety reasons. Demolition, which Marini said averages $10,000 per unit, isn't an option.

On Patrol

Camden investigators find diverse duty throughout the city. During Mischief Night 1994, Leary hit the streets and didn't return to his downtown headquarters until 2 A.M. He cruised the hot spots and learned that finding pre-Halloween trouble in Camden isn't hard. Situations range from rubbish fires to teens congregating on corners with some picking parked cars as a way to slip through the curfew crack.

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Photo by Patricia J. Orey
An aerial unit attacks a fire that broke out in a vacant warehouse at West and Berkley in Camden, NJ. The blaze in the block-long brick building was extinguished quickly.


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Photo by Robert Cobb
Camden, NJ Mount Vernon and 7th.

Pulling up beside one occupied car Leary requested police and asked the driver for his name and address. The brazen man hollered: "What do you want to know that for?" The veteran investigator responded: " 'Cause I want to send you a Christmas card!"

A few minutes later, East Camden units responded to a fully involved turn-of-the-century mansion. Shots were fired at units dousing a car fire. An engine responding to the working fire collided with a car. Police asked Leary to respond to a rowhouse near a desolate North Camden intersection. Three liquor bottles filled with an accelerant were fished out of the debris-strewn interior.

In South Camden a volunteer unit from Brooklawn arrived to find a fire in the living room of a rowhouse and a bonfire in the side yard. Leary grabbed a hoseline and opened up on the front room, quelling the blaze. "That felt good. I never get tired of this," he said, smiling as he passed the 11/2-inch line to another firefighter.

A problem in Camden is the regional media's coverage of Mischief Night activities. Many send camera crews to film the larger blazes but under-report the seriousness of the time-consuming smaller fires that drain the stamina of firefighters. There's no question that responses have declined from the horrific number in 1991. "Back then, we were getting two to three fires every minute," Marini recalled.

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Photo by Robert Cobb
Camden, NJ 3rd and Bailey.


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Photo by Robert Cobb
Camden, NJ Mount Vernon and 7th.

Television editors condense Mischief Night to a two-minute sound bite of resident patrols and the featured blaze. They eagerly report a decrease in incidents, regardless of the fact that the amount of activity is far above the normal daily tally. Arson frustrates firefighters. Media attention disappears on Halloween night and the following day, when firefighters continue to deal with residual arson.

Again, South Camden bore the brunt of the 1996 attack. Serving in the field in a battalion, Marini arrived on scene to find a well-involved 100-by-60-foot commercial building. "It was as the British say 'about 75 percent alight,' " Marini mused. Shortly thereafter, companies attacked a serious blaze in a house at 8th and Bailey streets.

A rally of community spirit and tactical application of resources seems to be helping America's most troubled Mischief Night cities. Analyzing police intelligence and shadowing first-in units with replacement companies draws more resources to sectors taking the heat. But success still comes down to resident pride and dedicated firefighters. "We're doing everything possible to save our city and protect our firefighters," Camden Chief Kenneth Penn said.

While volunteer firefighters in suburban Camden found their services less in demand in 1996, volunteer attorneys found needy recipients for their skills in Detroit's judicial system. They were on hand to represent more than 90 teens charged with Devil's Night curfew violations.