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Ridgway arsonist still at large after fires

June 20, 2012

Photo by Joseph Bell – A June 17 fire destroyed the Walnut Street home of Stephen and Georgina Gausman, who were out of town. The call reportedly came in at 2:58 a.m. The blaze caused an estimated $200,000 worth of damage.

While local officials are trying not to cause a panic with Ridgway residents, the fact remains the same: with two unexplained fires less than three weeks apart being deemed arson cases, the unease has set in.
"The two that we've had in three weeks, we have an issue," said Ridgway fire chief John Wygant. "I don't want to elaborate on it because I don't want to create a problem in the community, and I don't want to cause a panic or have people running, buying guns and shooting people. We can't have that.
"I want help from the community in going to the police; we need people to be vigilant, observant, watching their neighborhood. I'm not saying to create a neighborhood watch because that's not the point. I have to really be careful with what I'm saying.
"I've met with [Ridgway Borough Police] Chief [Ralph] Tettis and we agreed that we really weren't going to do a whole lot as far as press releases because we don't want to create a panic."
Pauline Smith was the first victim when a fire early Wednesday morning, May 30, destroyed her West Main Street residence. The blaze reportedly broke out between 5:15 and 5:30 a.m.
"There were rumors that Mrs. Smith had passed away and they were nothing but rumors," Wygant said, indicating the woman now resides comfortably in an assisted living facility outside the area. "There were quite a few people who were saying she was dead and that is nothing but a false rumor. [Smith] had COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) and thank God she did because that's what woke her up.
"[Smith] couldn't breathe and she didn't have any idea why she couldn't breathe, but she knew there was something there affecting her breathing."
The fire, which caused roughly $100,000 in damage, reportedly appeared to have started on an enclosed back porch.
"The door was unlocked," Wygant said. "I have no idea how it started-- we did bring the accelerant dog in and that dog hit in a couple of places but not to the volume where there was a lot."
The 69-year-old woman's residence was reportedly a total loss.
Officials continue to investigate the June 17 fire that destroyed the Walnut Street home of Stephen and Georgina Gausman, who were out of town. The call reportedly came in at 2:58 a.m. The blaze caused an estimated $200,000 worth of damage.
"It was a suspended porch and [the fire] was started underneath and close to the house," Wygant said. "It's an area where you can stand, and it's a covered area-- it wasn't like climbing under the porch and the ceiling was 10 feet in the air. We have no idea how it started in regards to what materials."
The 35-year firefighting veteran has grave concerns after two arson cases have jolted west end residents.
"I'm very concerned for the safety of the community, as we've never had incidences like this," Wygant said. "I've talked to the other chiefs that have preceded me and they have never had incidences like this. They've had arsons, yes, you always have one or two here and there but never this close, time-wise, this close together.
"It's very alarming and devastating to the family because the family lost all their worldly goods. They didn't do anything to anybody, someone did something to them, violated them, took away all their personal property, and all their memories are gone for who knows what reason."
If there is any such thing as "a fire too close for comfort," the two recent blazes have hit home for Wygant, also a resident of the west end of Ridgway.
"Three blocks from me, both ways, and it didn't take me long to get there," Wygant said. "It probably took me longer to get out of bed and get dressed than it did to get there. At 3 a.m. or so, you're not functioning mentally properly and you're trying to hustle.
"When I got there, the back of the house was fully engulfed in flames, in both situations."
With an arsonist still at large, Wygant said he, along with law enforcement officials, are not "sitting with our hands in our pockets."
"We're doing everything we can as a fire department, everything within our power to stay sharp," Wygant said. "We have no game plan if it happens again because we don't know. It's not like we have people sitting in the trucks with the engines running. We don't have that-- if it's going to happen, then it's when?
"I worry that this person doesn't have much of a conscience and with not having much of a conscience, who knows where this person or persons may strike again."
For the fire chief and west end residents, the unease continues.
"As a fire chief and as a person, I am concerned that it will happen again because we do not have a suspect and we do not have anyone in custody," Wygant said. "I have to be concerned that whoever this person or persons may be is going to attempt to do this again. Until we catch someone, that's my feeling, we just don't know. Trooper [Greg] Agosti is one of the best fire marshals that I've worked with, he's a good fire investigator and he's very thorough, he doesn't just walk in there and say, 'Yeah, you're right,' and walk away. [Agosti] gets in the trenches with us and digs through, and he shares some information.
"There are things in an investigation that I don't want to know because I don't want to create problems with them during their investigation, same goes for Chief Tettis. I only want to know when we have someone in custody who has admitted that they've done this. I have a fire investigation background and that's where I have to stop."
Through a series of interviews conducted with west end residents, the general consensus is that homeowners in the area are uneasy but are also getting smarter.
Several said they would be purchasing additional security lighting, modern security systems, and in some cases, surveillance cameras.
The interviews were conducted in an anonymous manner in an effort to protect the homeowners' identity.
"Being a former firefighter, I'm not going to live in fear," said one Walnut Street resident who has lived in his home for roughly three decades. "I don't know if it's a random act with all the rumors swirling around. I work out of town and didn't know anything about it until Sunday night when I spoke to my wife. We're close friends with [the Gausmans] and being a firefighter, I've seen fires and when someone intentionally lights a fire, it's not good.
"I hope the person or persons are caught for the sake of the town. I've lived here 30 years and I've seen more police in the last two nights than I have in probably the 30 years that I've lived here, and I'm glad that there's an increased presence. Will they catch someone?… I don't know. Will they stay around here?… I don't know. Maybe another part of town is next… you just don't know."

Pick up a copy of the Thursday, June 21, 2012 edition of The Ridgway Record for more.

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