EAST CHICAGO | East Chicago fire and police investigators are probing a series of suspicious fires early Monday that left homes, garages, vehicles, NIPSCO lines and garbage cans in flames -- and residents of three city blocks awake and nervous.
“We really can't say it's arson at this point," acting Assistant Fire Chief Jesse Becerra said Monday. Neighborhood residents said they believe kids in their early teens set the fires.
All the fires remain under investigation, Fire Inspector Captain Dennis Fanno said Monday afternoon.
According to Becerra, crews were called just after midnight to two trash can fires in the 5000 block of Northcote Avenue.
"We put those out and before we got to the station, we got another call," Becerra said.
That call came from the 4900 block of Magoun Avenue regarding another trash can fire. That fire melted a gas meter to the ground, Becerra said.
"We heard a hissing sound," coming from the meter, Becerra said.
NIPSCO crews were called to turn off gas to the home and aid in firefighter safety.
"As soon as we were done with that, we got a call to the 4900 block of Homerlee," Becerra said.
When firefighters arrived, they found a garage and a van parked outside fully engulfed in flames.
"When we opened the garage door, it flashed over," Becerra said, setting another garage on fire that contained a new sedan and a Jeep, and melting the siding on the back of a home occupied by the Gonzalez-Hence family.
“This was my only transportation to my job,” said Stephen Perez, of the 4900 block of Northcote, who always parked his 1994 Chevrolet Astro van in the alley behind his residence.
Looking at the windowless burned-out vehicle, Perez said, “I came out to move it, but the metal was so hot. I just stepped aside and watched it burn. It broke my heart.”
Ted Gonzalez said his daughters Lily, 5, and Sabrina, 6 Gonzalez, 5, were asleep in their rented home’s corner rear bedroom.
“I ran in and got them out to the living room. You could feel the heat coming from the fire and the siding,” Ted Gonzalez said.
The sisters’ half-brother, 11-year-old Jason Hence, tried to put out the siding fire with the garden hose, said mother, Karen Hence.
The heat of the fire caused NIPSCO wires to fall, with firefighters working to put water on two garages and Perez’s van with live wires sparking nearby. Becerra said NIPSCO again was called to cut power to the two lines.
Becerra said as firefighters began packing their engines to leave the fire on Homerlee they received a call of a car fire in the alley of 4800 Northcote Avenue.
"There was a tire under the engine, so it probably started there," he said. "The owner said he didn't put it there."
Becerra said firefighters left the station just after midnight and didn’t return to the station until around 5 a.m.
Officials are asking anyone with information or who saw anything suspicious to contact the East Chicago Police Department at (219) 391-8270.