The Town That Burned Itself Down

by longformphilly

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Matthew Teague | Philadelphia Magazine | January 2010

ON THE NIGHT of January 24th last year, Coatesville firefighter Bob Tracey got the call: fire on Fleetwood Street, size unknown. He pulled on his boots and rushed out the front door of his home, glad he lived just a few blocks from the firehouse. He often showed up first, even for little one-alarm fires.

On this night, though, he saw that a crew had already hustled from the station in a fire truck. And the radio traffic seemed more frantic than usual: Two alarms. Three alarms. What on earth was happening over on Fleetwood? Tracey pulled on his gear — his “turnout,” as firefighters say — and, when no one else showed up by the time he dressed, hopped into the driver’s seat of a ladder truck: He’d go alone on a second truck. He fired up the engine and pulled onto Strode Avenue.

As Tracey drove, he let his eyes flick across the sky, looking for the column of smoke. And he wondered: How many times had he done this in the past year? Whispers among firefighters had started as early as 2007, when they noticed an uptick in the number of arsons in town. Small stuff, at first. Trash fires, uninhabited buildings. Then, in 2008, the perpetrator moved on to garages, and finally the unthinkable: occupied homes.

Writer bio: Matthew Teague is a native Southerner who has freelanced for Esquire, GQ and Philadelphia Magazine, among others.

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