The day after her row house and 14 others were severely damaged by arson, Geneva Thomas was angry and homeless, but she knew even then that she would rebuild and return to the two-story brick home she bought right out of high school.
The Jan. 24 blaze burned an entire block on Fleetwood Street. It was the nadir of a series of arsons — about 50 in this steel town outside Philadelphia between February 2008 and March, plus 20 more nearby.
The fires have subsided and seven suspects have been arrested, but Thomas is still waiting for her neighbors to rejoin her. Nine months after the fire, homeowners are still weighing whether to fix homes with heavily damaged roofs, gutted rooms, electrical damage and other problems.
“I’m used to talking to the neighbors, but now there’s nobody to talk to,” said Thomas, 39, who lived with her sister during the repairs and moved back in June. “There’s just nothing like having your own place.”
One neighbor, Jane Hickman, just recently returned. Others are working on their homes, but many houses remain vacant and boarded up. A few doors down from Thomas, one red brick home has a spray-painted message: “Stop Stealing Stay Out.”
Of the 15 homes damaged on the block, the city initially declared 14 uninhabitable, city spokeswoman Kristin Geiger said. Four have been condemned and four are being repaired, including Thomas’ and Hickman’s, Geiger said. The owners of seven other homes are still exploring their options, Geiger said.
The fire was set in the middle of the block and spread. It did $1.2 million in damage, but there were no serious injuries. Overall, the six dozen arsons in and around Coatesville claimed one life, an 83-year-old woman killed in a December fire.
Robert Scott Clark owns three properties on Fleetwood Street, two of which were damaged in the fire. He said one of the damaged homes is almost ready to be rented out again, but he’s not sure what to do about the other.
“I’m just kind of waiting and wondering, trying to find out what the other people are going to do,” said Clark, who was fully insured on both properties.
“I think that there’s definitely a sense that the people that were there want to come back,” he said.
Some homeowners, like Thomas, didn’t have insurance. Others have run into logistical snags that have slowed repairs.
A local nonprofit, Good Works Inc., is a proponent of trying to renovate the damaged homes. The group did $6,200 worth of repairs to make Thomas’ return possible.
Many property owners were hesitant to start repairs immediately after the fire, because the arsons were still happening, said Joe Lisowski, repair supervisor at Good Works.
At the time, homeowners were on edge: The city was warning its 11,000 residents to keep their porches clear of debris that could be used to light a fire and was giving away smoke detectors. The Guardian Angels were patrolling the streets.
“Because they were happening almost weekly, or every couple weeks, it was almost like, what’s the point?” said Lisowski, who also helped Hickman get set up with contractors to do her repairs. Once the fires stopped, building owners were more willing to start repairs, he said.
On a recent morning, at the opposite end of the block from Thomas, Majin Sanchez was painting a home owned by his brother-in-law. The home needed electrical work, drywall repairs and other fixes, said Sanchez, 37. He said his brother-in-law hopes to rent it out again soon.
Despite the arrests, including for the Fleetwood Street fire, investigators never found a clear pattern. Only two of the seven suspects knew each other; two had been firefighters and one had been rejected in a bid to join a fire company; several had mental health issues. Many of the blazes remain unsolved.
With no clear explanation, many in Coatesville are still asking why.
For now, the work being done on Fleetwood Street marks the beginning of a rebirth, Lisowski said.
“It’s never happened in this town (before) and never should happen,” he said. “But now that you know it’s done, you want to rebuild and be back in your home.”
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