- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Investigators said yesterday’s fire at an Arlington County home is not connected to the two at College Park businesses on Monday, even though all three were set near natural-gas meters.

“They’re similar in nature regarding the gas meters, but with those being completely different types of occupancies … we’re not linking any kind of correlation,” said Capt. Tom Polera, Arlington County’s assistant fire marshal.

The cause of the fire at a home in the 1000 block of South Queen Street in Arlington has yet to be determined, but investigators had not ruled out arson.

Capt. Polera said the fire started at 6:20 a.m. on the side of the single-story home, near the gas meter. A passing motorist spotted the flames and awakened a woman inside before calling 911.

Firefighters had to shut off the gas line at the meter to help extinguish the fire. The damage was estimated at $20,000 to $30,000.

Capt. Polera said an investigator from the regional Arson Task Force was called to the scene, and a dog detected traces of accelerants. However, the specially trained dog might have smelled hydrocarbons created by the burning natural gas, he said.

Washington Gas Co. officials also are inspecting the home’s gas meter to determine whether it malfunctioned or somebody tampered with it. And the Arson Task Force laboratory in Annandale is looking for accelerants in soil samples taken from outside the house. The results are expected within the week.

The state and federal task force is investigating 43 fires in the area in the past 18 months that they suspect are the work of a serial arsonist.

However, Kelly Long, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said investigators have made no connection between yesterday’s fire and the arsons.

“It’s under evaluation right now,” she said. “We cannot say yes or no whether it’s related to the serial arsonist.”

Prince George’s County investigators said arson was the cause of the Monday morning fires in College Park on Route 1 —first at a Best Western Hotel at about 6 a.m., then about 90 minutes later at a restaurant about a half mile away. But they have ruled out the serial arsonist in the fires, which caused $1 million in damage to the hotel and adjoining E.J.’s Landing restaurant and gutted Lasick’s College Inn, a restaurant and liquor store just north of the University of Maryland campus.

“It’s very chilling that somebody’s got nothing better to do,” hotel owner Bobby Shah said.

No injuries were reported.

“I don’t have any idea what to say to somebody like that, except they took my employees’ livelihood away, hurt my family,” said Joe Lasick III, owner of Lasick’s College Inn. “My mother and father taught me well, though; I’ll say a prayer for him. That’s the best I can do.”

Mr. Lasick had decorated the restaurant with relics he recovered from sunken ships. Most burned in the fire, but he was able to save some.

“Everybody said that what I brought off the ocean floor was junk, but I made decorations out of it,” Mr. Lasick said. “But now it’s pretty burned up. It’s a shame that something made it to 100 to 200 years old and then got burned up by somebody that doesn’t have the sense of a day-old pig.”

Officials also said they have no specific suspects, but confirmed a witness account of a person arguing outside of Lasick’s, then asking for a ride to the hotel prior to the fires.

“But that doesn’t automatically make that person an arson suspect,” said Mark Brady, Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department spokesman. “Investigators are following up on all possible leads.”

Both fires were set outside and near natural-gas meters feeding kitchens.

Mr. Brady also said no solid connection between the fires has been established.

“We acknowledge there are similarities in the two incidents, but we are not yet poised to say they are the same person or linked,” he said. “While that may be forthcoming, we are not in a position at this point to make that statement.”

Mr. Brady said arsonists probably would tamper with the gas pipes to make the fire more effective. He said some gas pipes, which are often exposed aboveground, are made out of aluminum and are fire-resistant only up to 1,800 degrees.

“The fire doesn’t have to get that raging to affect them,” he said.

In the wake of the fires, gas company officials urged residents to keep an eye on gas equipment outside their homes.

“We ask customers to remain vigilant,” said Washington Gas spokesman Miguel Gonzalez. “Treat the natural-gas equipment outside their homes as part of their homes.”

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