Blaze fits pattern

College of Charleston sophomore Richard Blank and his mother, Elizabeth Blank, stand in front of the house he shared with roommates on St. Philip Street. The house burned on Saturday night.

melissa haneline

A fire that largely gutted one St. Philip Street house and damaged another late Saturday could be the work of a serial arsonist, Charleston fire and police officials said Monday.

The fire at 201 St. Philip was reported about 9:45 p.m. Saturday. It consumed much of the home's first and second floors and the attic before spreading to an adjacent home at 205 St. Philip St.

The fire is believed to have started when someone ignited loose items on the home's porch, a common characteristic in a string of suspicious home fires in downtown Charleston in the past few years, Fire Chief Thomas Carr Jr. said.

Carr said that if the fires are the work of a serial arsonist, tips from the public can help catch the person. "The key is the community and their vigilance."

Police Chief Greg Mullen declined to say how many unsolved fires share similarities or if Saturday's fire is definitely connected.

He said the Police Department has two investigators devoted to solving the suspected crimes but no suspects. "We do not know if it's a single individual or multiple individuals."

At least a dozen unsolved blazes fitting a similar pattern have occurred in the area over the past five years or so.

Most of the fires have involved vacant houses or homes occupied by college-age residents within a few blocks of the Crosstown Expressway.

The firebug tends to strike between midnight and 5 a.m., lighting fires on back porches or stairways using available items such as a couch or trash.

Before Saturday's fire, the most recent one fitting the same characteristics occurred about two weeks ago on Carolina Street, Mullen said.

Richard Blank, a sophomore at the College of Charleston, rented the house where Saturday's fire started, but neither he nor his three roommates were home at the time.

On Monday, Blank and his mother, Elizabeth Blank, assessed the charred home and expressed relief that no one was harmed.

Elizabeth Blank said it sickens her to think that someone may have intentionally set the fire. "With the beach house fire, it really hits home," she said, referring to the October 2007 blaze that killed seven college students in Ocean Isle Beach, N.C.