On March 30, 2002, a fire broke out at 563 Rutledge Ave. As flames consumed the home's wooden porch, a 78-year-old man, Marsh Bennett, was trapped on the second floor. Firefighters rushed in and found him alive, but with his face badly burned and lungs singed. Bennett died five days later.
Without uncovering any solid evidence of the fire's cause, investigators classified it as "accidental" and closed the case. They kept the file closed even as more than 80 suspicious fires broke out in the neighborhoods around the Crosstown. Twice, someone tried to torch that same house.
On Friday, two of Bennett's daughters gathered in front of 563 Rutledge and urged authorities to take a fresh look at the fire that killed their father.
"They closed this case so fast; we want answers and justice to be done," said Beverly Henderson of Charleston.
"The community needs to come together on this before someone else dies," added Martha Fairrow, who traveled from St. Petersburg, Fla., to press for the case to be reopened.
The fire that killed Bennett happened at the beginning of what would become downtown Charleston's worst arson spree in decades.
A recent Post and Courier report revealed that 83 suspicious fires were set around the Crosstown since 2002, many more than city officials acknowledged. The newspaper's analysis of old police reports also uncovered the fire that killed Bennett and its similarities to other intentionally set fires in the neighborhood, namely that it began on a darkened side porch early in the morning.
Police reports show, however, that Charleston Fire Department investigators quickly ruled the cause accidental, and based largely on that ruling, so did police and the coroner. A detective wrote: "The origin of the fire was the outside porch but the source of the fire may never be known."
Mark Ruppel, the Fire Department's spokesman, said representatives from the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, State Law Enforcement Division, the coroner's office, and city fire and police investigators are reviewing records of the fire.
The group will make a recommendation to the full city task force Thursday about reopening the case, he said.
Dot Scott, president of the NAACP's Charleston chapter, said she thinks the city needs to take a harder look at what happened. "He was somebody. I don't think his life should just be written off as an accident after a couple of days of investigation."
She said Bennett was a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "This isn't about race, but I think that had someone of more prominence died, this would have been investigated more thoroughly."
Not true, Ruppel said. "Every case is investigated in the same manner, no matter who the individual is."
On Friday, Henderson and Fairrow met in front of the house; it was the first time in nearly 10 years Fairrow had been there. "This is hard," she said, her eyes growing moist. "How can you say in one voice that it was an accident and in another voice say you don't know what caused it?"
Nearby, a red sign offering a $25,000 reward for information about the arsons was planted next to the sidewalk. Fairrow held a small black-and-white photo of her father when he was in the Army. "Why would it be so difficult to reopen the case? To say it was a possibility? What do you have to lose?"
On the other hand, she added, if someone did set that fire, "not only are we looking for an arsonist, we're looking for a murder/homicide."