It was more than a packed house tonight at Phinney Ridge Lutheran Church as fire, police and city officials tried to assure a panicked neighborhood that they were doing everything they could to catch an arsonist or arsonists who could be responsible for 13 arsons in Greenwood since June, plus another in Lake City that could be connected.
The photo below was taken 20 minutes before the meeting even started. Five minutes later it was standing room only. And as the meeting started, fire officials announced they’d closed the room because it was over capacity with about 400 people. Seattle City Councilmember Jean Godden walked in a few minutes later, announcing that several hundred people were upstairs in the sanctuary, and hoped fire and police officials would hold a second meeting for them, which they did after the meeting downstairs ended.
Two sign language interpreters took turns signing for attendees who are hard of hearing.
“The last time we saw a community meeting of this size was in South Park, after the South Park murder,” SPD Public Information Officer Sean Whitcomb told me after the meeting. “This is a big deal.”
SFD Asst Chief A.D. Vickery, a Greenwood resident for 35 years, began the packed meeting by saying, “Wow, this is incredible. This is a neighborhood.”
Asst. Chief John Nelsen, Fire Marshal, added to laughter from the audience, “We are over capacity. We do have folks posted at the exit doors.” Then he gave a general safety overview in case we needed to exit the building due to a fire. Seriously.
Mayor-elect Mike McGinn, a Greenwood resident, got a loud round of applause, as did Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata, and State Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, also neighborhood residents. Actually, every official introduced received a round of applause, and the audience was very respectful throughout the meeting.
The number of arsons is up from the 10 previously thought. Here’s a list of the arsons by date, with the time and address. There are actually 14 listed; Seattle Fire Department included one from Lake City that happened three days after the devastating downtown Greenwood fire that destroyed four businesses and seriously damaged others:
- June 19 – 10 p.m., 8733 Greewood Ave. N. (OK Corral restaurant)
- July 19 – 10:57 p.m., 737 N. 80th St.
- August 12 – 1:33 p.m., 7708 Greenwood Ave. N. (house behind building housing Moon Photo)
- August 13 – 4:31 p.m., 108 NW 84th St. (house fire, one man severely burned)
- August 13 – 3:21 a.m., 1111 N. 98th St. (small office building with apartments above)
- October 23 – 4:04 a.m., 208 N. 85th St. (Green Bean Coffeehouse, Pho Tic Tac, Szechuan Bistro, C.C. Teriyaki, Taproot Theatre)
- October 26 – 12:31 a.m., NE 145th St./17th Ave. NE (fire set in dumpster)
- November 1 – 1:43 a.m., 2125 N. 90th St.
- November 2 – 11:28 p.m., 13437 Greenwood Ave. N. (apartments)
- November 5 – 3:42 a.m., 338 NW 85th St. (CPA Seattle)
- November 5 – 4:10 a.m., 8400 Greenwood Ave. N. (Rosewood Guitar)
- November 8 – 10:53 p.m., 7704 Greenwood Ave. N. (Moon Photo)
- November 9 – 3:50 a.m., 8516 Greenwood Ave. N. (Olive You)
- November 9 – 7:40 a.m., 8102 Greenwood Ave. N. (Greenwood Quickstop)
Seattle Fire Department and Seattle Police Department do not know if all 14 are connected. And they didn’t want to give away too much information that might compromise their investigation, such as whether or not accellerants were used. It is a joint investigation between SPD and SFD. Helen Fitzpatrick, Public Information Officer for SFD, explained to me after the meeting that the Fire Department handles the cause and origin of a fire, then SPD handles the criminal investigation.
“Seattle Police is taking this very seriously,” Paul McDonagh, Asst. Chief for SPD, Special Operations Bureau, said. “It is a priority for us. You need to know that we have both visible and invisible patrols in this area.”
In fact, Greenwood resident Matt Heilgeist told me after the meeting that he was walking around the neighborhood at 4 a.m. this morning looking for anyone suspicious. He called in several suspicious-looking groups of people, but then was told by a dispatcher they were actually undercover officers on arson patrol.
Vickery stressed that the two departments were working closely and as hard as they can to find the arsonist(s). “There’s an incredible partnership here between safety and law enforcement,” he said. “Not only have we lost property here in Greenwood, but this has put lives at risk and your firefighters’ lives at risk.”
The problem with solving arsons is that evidence is usually burned up in the fire. Local authorities have asked for assistance from the feds, the ATF – Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. And now if someone calls 911 and says they smell smoke, they’re sending two fire engines right away. Officials said when in doubt about whether to call 911 about something suspicious, they want you to err on the side of over-reporting. They’d rather it turned out to be nothing, than to get there too late.
Asst. Chief McDonagh said the most important thing in catching the arsonist(s) is for the community to be vigilant.
“The one thing that you can do right now… if you see something, say something. Call 911; get us the information. We can’t assist you if you don’t let us know what’s going on in your community. We can’t be everywhere, but you can.”
Authorities are working on a new website devoted exclusively to the Greenwood arsons. It is posted prominently near the bottom of SPD’s home page. Click it and you’ll get an SPD Blotter page devoted to the Greenwood arsons. There are only a few things on it now, but it should be more fully populated by Thursday.
Most of the arsons have been what authorities call “crimes of opportunity.” The arsonist(s) uses whatever combustible material they can find, but not necessarily what’s lying nearby. Discovered at one of the fires was material from a mile away (they didn’t specify what that material was).
To combat that, one business owner says she and her employees are wetting down paper as they put it in their recycle bin.
A number of business owners had mentioned in media reports that they would start spending the night in their business. Fire officials were wary of that.
“Generally at 4 o’clock in the morning, we’re going to consider a restaurant unoccupied,” Fire Marshal Nelsen explained. “But that would change things if someone may be there, especially if you’re asleep. People don’t usually die from fires, they die from smoke. If they’re sleeping, they’re really at risk.”
A representative from the mayor’s office was on hand to talk about Seattle Public Utilities’ efforts. If you see an overfull dumpster, call SPU and they’ll empty it. You can also call SPU’s main customer service number – 206-684-CITY – if a street light is out. Note the number on the pole before you call, so the city can track it more quickly.
A woman in the audience asked about citizen patrols at night, and one man said he’s started walking his dog at 3 a.m. SPD says it’s a good idea, but don’t make contact with a suspect, call 911. “If you see something out there, you’re going to get a response.”
Asst. Chief Vickery stressed that while officials are doing all they can, it’s ultimately up to the community to help each other. If you see your neighbor’s recycle bin is overflowing, offer to put some in your bin. If you see combustible materials lying around your elderly neighbor’s house, offer to clean it up.
“I think we have an obligation to help each other,” Vickery said. “It’s much easier for me to help the elderly woman two houses down than to make a phone call and hope somebody else helps her.”
Every media outlet in town was there. KING 5 filed this report for their 10 p.m. news. This is KOMO’s report from 11 p.m. Here’s the Seattle Times’ story, with a good photo of the crowd. The Seattle P.I. has audio clips from police and fire officials, and a great photo showing a huge crowd raising their hands when fire officials asked how many people had recently checked their smoke alarms. Ballard News Tribune’s story is here. And here’s Q13’s story. And frequent tipster/scanner hound Silver has a bunch of great photos here.