Multiple Arsons in Span of Hours Concern N.Y. Residents

Aug. 05--A string of already disturbing arsons in North Tonawanda reached epic proportions early Tuesday when a total of eight fire calls -- seven in NT and one in the City of Tonawanda -- flooded into 911 dispatchers between 12:30 and 2:06 a.m.

No serious injuries were reported, officials said, but the fires spanned across the Lumber City, from a Dumpster fire at the Tops on Meadow Drive, the first fire reported, to a large blaze at a nine-unit apartment complex in the 200 block of Goundry Street, the side of which was gutted and firefighters continued to battle into the early morning hours.

North Tonawanda Mayor Rob Ortt was huddled with Police Chief William Hall and Fire Chief John Lapham about 3 a.m., roughly 90 minutes after the last fire call came in and an hour after the final fire suspected in the arson string -- a blaze that started in a car parked on a sleepy side street in Tonawanda that eventually involved two adjoining homes -- was reported.

Reached after the calls began flooding in, Ortt said the situation is "scary, it's frightening."

He praised police and fire response to a scene Lapham described as "chaos."

As the investigation continued to unfold, Ortt released a statement to the Tonawanda News:

"I would like to commend our first responders, police officers and firefighters who did a remarkable job responding to multiple fires across the city. Thankfully, no one was seriously injured. ... I know that many of our residents are feeling scared and alarmed at this series of events. Those are natural emotions at a time like this. I can only say that I have confidence in our fire and police investigators that they will catch the person or persons responsible for these fires and bring them to justice."

One person who is not a suspect in Tuesday morning's chaos is Michelle Johnston, the Fifth Avenue resident charged with 11 arsons over a weeks-long span at neighboring homes. She remains held at the Niagara County Jail without bail on those felony counts and Hall said she's been ruled out as a suspect.

Hall declined to elaborate on the investigation in its early stages but said there was "video evidence (the department) is presently collecting."

Officials said the time frame for the fires was short -- less than two hours -- despite it spanning a large cross-section of North Tonawanda and then south into the City of Tonawanda. The first blaze, the Dumpster fire at Tops on Meadow Drive, was reported at 12:27 a.m. Tuesday. The precise time of the final call in North Tonawanda, the fire at the large apartment complex on Goundry Street, wasn't known but Lapham said it was about 1:30 a.m. The final fire call of the night came from the Tonawanda department and Police Capt. Fred Foels said their department's 911 call was logged at 2:06 a.m.

Other than the Dumpster fire at Tops, officials believe all the blazes began in vehicles parked overnight. The structures that were involved came as a result of those fires spreading to nearby homes. It is not believed that any homes were directly set on fire, officials said.

Foels said that fire was set when a car, left unlocked on Enterprise Avenue, a small side street between Gibson and Wheeler, was opened, doused with gasoline and set ablaze. Witnesses interviewed said they first heard an explosion and awoke to a car parked in a driveway between 51 and 55 Enterprise Ave. engulfed in flames.

Foels said officers canvassed the area and spoke to multiple witnesses. One witness, the person Foels deemed the most credible of those interviewed, said she saw one male running from the scene. Others interviewed said they saw two males fleeing the fire.

It's believed the vehicle targeted was random, Foels said, and that gasoline was heavy in the air even hours after the fire had been extinguished.

"These homeowners are as baffled as we are," Foels said. "I think it was just, they found this car in the driveway and it was unlocked. (They) doused the car with gasoline and let it go. It was a random pick."

In addition to the fire on Goundry, North Tonawanda reported three fires on Zimmerman Street, one on Ransom Street, one on Ganson Street and the Dumpster fire at the Tops on Meadow Drive.

Anyone with information or who believes they may have seen something suspicious related to one of the incidents, is asked to contact the North Tonawanda Police Department's detective bureau at 692-4312.

Copyright 2014 - Tonawanda News, North Tonawanda, N.Y.