String Of Fires Has Pennsylvania Town On Edge

Officials in Coatesville, Pa., have declared a state of emergency after a string of arsons. Investigators say there have been 18 cases in Coatesville this year, with five more in the surrounding area. The latest fire destroyed a mobile home just outside town late Friday.

One of the 50 or so left homeless in an arson on Fleetwood Street is Judy Schools.

"I was getting ready to lay down and sleep," she says, "and the alarms went off. Dogs started barking. My bird started going off and I looked out, and one neighbor's back porch was engulfed in flames. Once one caught, I think that's when they all start catching."

Coatesville police declared the state of emergency last month. State and federal investigators are also trying to catch what they say may be multiple arsonists. But so far, no arrests have been announced. And residents like Viola Easton are afraid that their homes could be next.

"Walk around the city, everyone used to be smiling and grinning and everything," she says. "But now everybody is nervous and tensed about a lot of things."

Easton has lived in this working-class town outside Philadelphia for 51 years, long enough to remember when downtown was thriving with movie theaters and department stores. But as jobs at the Lukens Steel plant gradually dried up, so did the town's economy. Crime rates went up. And while big-box stores and McMansions spring up just a few miles away, Coatesville remains an island of urban problems.

Some determined residents see a bright spot in all this.

"Out of this whole fire thing, you're seeing citizens, you're seeing churches, you're seeing city government work together in a way that's really inspiring," says pastor Keith Wilburn, who coordinates donations to affected families a few blocks from the site of the Fleetwood Street fire. "In the midst of all the fear and frustration, I think there is a sense that our city is ultimately going to come out of this stronger."

But first, the fires have to stop. And no one here can say when that will happen.

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