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PA town rocked by dozens of arsons

Faith-based organizations work to support terrified residents.

BY STEPHANIE BACKUS | COATESVILLE, PA | February 1, 2009

A eastern Pennsylvania town, rocked by a series of home arsons, is looking to the local faith community for support.

More than 30 homes have been damaged by arson during the past year in Coatesville, a town of 11,000, about 35 miles west of Philadelphia. More than half of those fires have been reported since the first of the year, the most recent occurred Jan. 31.

Nearly all of the fires have started on porches. A fire Jan. 25 burned through 15 rowhouses before it was extinguished. The city declared a State of Emergency last week.

The string of fires began last year, first in vacant homes, later including occupied homes. Police say they have few leads.

The Rev. Dan Wagner is president of the pastoral alliance of Coatesville and pastor of Towerville Christian Church. The incidents are taking an emotional toll on residents. One family took all the valuables out of their home and packed them in the trunk of their car, he said, adding local teachers have said kids come to school looking tired or crying and that some families are taking turns watching their homes at night.

While the city and emergency officials press to find those responsible for the fires, members of the city’s faith community are also providing care to area residents.

Following the multiple row house fire last Saturday night, Wagner said area pastors were at a shelter where displaced residents were given housing. “We were there a couple hours watching and talking to people and praying and that type of thing.”

By Sunday evening, church leaders, members and concerned citizens had gathered at the Tabernacle Baptist Church (ABC) to talk about what they could do to help anyone affected. Wagner said everyone was given the opportunity to share thoughts and ideas with the group and then a small group stayed behind to hash out some of the plans.

“By the next morning one of the guys got a blog going, and it just needed to be edited,” Wagner said. “I went to a meeting that afternoon and people were talking about reading it. I didn’t even know it was public knowledge at that point.”

Wagner said the faith-based organizations in Coatesville have strong ties to county agencies. He said there have been several meetings to organize different areas of relief.

“There has been cross-over (in agencies). Some churches started clothing and furniture drop-offs and they become the county drop-off points, too,” said Wagner.

He said the faith-based community has been very active in organizing prayer opportunities for people. He said there is a prayer hotline that people can call if they want to pray or be prayed for, and a town prayer gathering was set for Saturday.

Agencies at the city, county, state and federal levels are looking for clues as to who might be setting the fires. The city government organized a town meeting to discuss the investigation and relief efforts so far. It has been estimated that 400-600 people attended that meeting.

According to Wagner, even churches are meeting on their own to discuss emergency plans for their buildings.

“I was at a meeting (Thursday night) and someone asked, “what if they set fire to a church building? Are we prepared to have service if that ever happened?”


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Related Links:

• List of organizations helping city residents: Coatesville Fire Department

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