A North Tonawanda man has confessed to setting a series of seven fires in cars and homes starting late Monday night, city police announced Tuesday evening.
Christopher Syracuse, 26, was arrested at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday and charged with 13 counts of arson and criminal mischief, North Tonawanda Police Chief William R. Hall said at a late-night press conference at City Hall.
City of Tonawanda Police Chief William Strassburg said he expects to charge Syracuse, who previously lived in that city, with arson for a fire that started in a car and then damaged two homes.
“Residents of the city can sleep a little better tonight,” Hall said.
Hall said pictures of the suspect released to the media Tuesday afternoon played a “significant role” in the arrest, prompting a number of tips, including one that led authorities to Syracuse.
Hall said an SUV belonging to Syracuse was seized and will be tested for evidence tying him to the arsons.
Syracuse is being held in the North Tonawanda city jail pending arraignment in City Court this morning.
Hall said Syracuse was “more or less cooperative” with authorities but he did not reveal what might have motivated his actions.
Hall called the investigation a “total team effort,” including police and fire departments plus the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The arrest capped a hectic night and day that put the residents of two cities on edge.
The first fire call came at 11:28 p.m. Monday – a Dumpster fire behind a Tops store.
Almost an hour later, a pickup truck parked between two homes on Zimmerman Street went up in flames, damaging both homes.
A garbage tote behind a nearby strip plaza was also targeted.
Thirty-seven minutes after that, another truck caught fire about half a mile away – this one between two Ransom Street homes, both of which were also damaged.
By then, North Tonawanda firefighters knew something was wrong. So began a night that frightened residents, exhausted firefighters and sent police looking for answers. By morning, investigators fanned out across the Tonawandas and retrieved a 10-second surveillance clip from a building company in a plaza near two of the fires. That video alerted authorities to a young male suspect.
The seven blazes over two hours stretched three miles from North Tonawanda’s Meadow Drive to the City of Tonawanda.
No one suffered any serious injuries, but the fires destroyed one multi-family house and five vehicles and damaged the exteriors of seven other homes.
The fires also fanned fears among residents.
“I live in the city. I’m nervous,” Hall said.
Investigators went to gas stations and other businesses Tuesday to watch their surveillance footage.
Based on the surveillance footage from the building company near the Zimmerman Street fires, police described the suspect as a white male of medium build, with short dark hair, and wearing glasses and a V-neck shirt.
Police do not know if the arsonist traveled by foot or vehicle during the string of fires.
North Tonawanda beefed up police patrols Tuesday night. They asked residents to call 911 to report any suspicious person near their homes.
Residents said they heard loud booms when the vehicles exploded. But police don’t believe that necessarily means the arsonist threw bombs.
The chain of events was similar in each fire. The arsonist set a vehicle on fire, and the flames spread to the nearby homes.
Earlier this summer, North Tonawanda was terrorized by another series of fires. Michelle L. Johnston, 41, of North Tonawanda, has been accused of setting almost a dozen fires over a month in the city. She was recently arrested after she allegedly started a fire at her own home at 15 Fifth Ave.
Between 100 and 150 firefighters – both professionals and volunteers – from surrounding departments responded to the fires Monday night and early Tuesday morning or stood by at stations to assist North Tonawanda and the City of Tonawanda.
“I was very impressed with the operations of the North Tonawanda crews,” said Fire Chief Charles Stuart of the City of Tonawanda Fire Department. “They don’t have as much staff as they used to, but they were able to scramble very well.”
No firefighters were hurt.
Damage estimates were not available.
On Zimmerman Street, where the first homes caught fire, cars drove by slowly Tuesday morning to take in the scene.
This is where the arsonist ignited a red Chevrolet Silverado and then the flames spread to a home on either side.
Terry Schultz, 64, and his wife, Donna, of 258 Zimmerman, got out of their home when they hear loud noises and the smoke detector.
“I was in bed,” Terry Schultz said. “I heard some popping noises and thought it might even be gunshots.”
“This is a sleepy, little community,” he added. “This just doesn’t happen here.”
About half a mile away, in a Ransom Street driveway, sat another reminder of the tense, scary night: a black Dodge Ram, its interior blackened and melted from flames.
“I just woke up to a boom,” said Patricia McGee of 92 Ransom, one of the burned homes. “It was as if they took a metal drum and threw it into the cab.”
She and her husband, Timothy, have lived on the street for 33 years. She said they feel shocked and angry – but most of all relieved.
“Nobody was hurt,” Patricia McGee said. “We’re lucky.”
Roger Schrecongost, 66, the owner of the truck, was asleep upstairs at the time when his wife, Betty, 63, heard a loud explosion while in the living room.
“I saw the flames from the kitchen window and started screaming, ‘There’s a fire! Get out, get out!’ ”
Before that, she had heard someone pounding on the house and shouting.
She first thought it was teenagers up to no good, but it turned out her neighbor, Nick Vossler, 18, was trying to alert them of the fire.
“I saw that their truck was just in a blaze, dialed 911, ran over there as fast as I could and started banging on their door to get them out,” said Vossler, a SUNY Buffalo State student. “The one thing in my mind was ‘get them out.’ ”
Said Betty Schrecongost, “We’re very grateful to him. It could’ve been more disastrous than what it was.
“What kind of people would do this?” she asked.
Other fearful Ransom Street residents wondered the same thing.
“My daughter is afraid to sleep at home tonight,” said Heather Long, 36.
She and another neighbor, Dianna O’Hanlon, 38, struggled to sleep following the fires.
“Every time I heard a car drive down the street, I was scared,” Long said.
“I stayed out front just pacing until the birds started chirping, and I’ll do it again tonight,” O’Hanlon said.
The homeowner of 49 Ganson St. was sleeping in her first-floor bedroom – the window faces her driveway – when she heard an explosion around 1 a.m.
“I could see the flames in the reflection of the window,” she said. “I look out and it’s my car. I quickly put my shoes on. I pick up my phone. The phones were down. I ran through the back, came out the sliding back door to the driveway, screaming, ‘Help me! Help me! Help me!’”
She ran right between her burning Chevrolet Malibu and her neighbor’s house.
Her hand touched her neighbor’s brick siding, which left a one-inch burn on her right palm.
The fire at the 208 Goundry St. apartment complex caused the worst damage.
Susan Blasko, 50, lives in an apartment complex at 309 Goundry St. She moved here last September from North Carolina.
“I’m a little shook up,” said Blasko, on a sidewalk watching the firefighters douse the fire. “