ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – Investigators with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have joined state and local authorities investigating four separate fires of historic buildings in downtown St. Augustine within blocks of each other before dawn Monday.
By afternoon, St. Augustine police said three of the four fires were arson, and they believe all four may be connected.
Surveillance video from the area shows a man investigators believe may have been responsible for at least one of the fires. He is seen wearing what appears to be a white T-shirt.
According to St. Johns County Fire Rescue, the first fire was reported at 3:25 a.m. at the architectural office for Dixon Design Group on 45 Cordova St. When fire crews arrived, flames and smoke were coming out of the building.
Josh Lemaster said he was outside hanging out with some friends when he saw smoke coming out of the building.
"Eighty feet in the air," Lemaster said. "We seen it from the fort. Basically that whole place there caught on fire and flames were everywhere, smoke was everywhere. It was crazy. I was the first one here. I called police."
Phillip Chandler also witnessed the fire.
"We thought it was a bonfire because it wasn't a lot of smoke. Then we didn't pay any attention to it and later on saw flames and embers going way into the sky," Chandler said.
The building partially collapsed during the fire, according to firefighters, who were able to extinguish the flames in about 15 minutes.
"It was crazy," Chandler said. "I've seen fires before and I've seen a forest fire, a small one, but nothing this big. I've never seen a house on fire. The stairs in the back started falling back. The flames were huge. But they got in here and got it out quick."
People working inside the St. Augustine Police Department reported hearing explosions around the same time the fires were reported.
Fire Rescue said the building was vacant at the time of the fire. No firefighters were injured in that fire.
Investigators said the fire was the result of arson.
A second fire was reported at 3:28 a.m. at an empty home two blocks from the office fire on 17 Saragossa St.
Fire crews saw flames coming from the home when they arrived. They quickly extinguished the fire and no injuries were reported.
Investigators said they have ruled that fire arson. They said the fire was started on the outside of the home with combustible materials.
"It was under the house," St. Augustine Fire Marshal Capt. Bob Growick said. "It wasn't that windy. Unless wind is flowing through there, it's actually going to accelerate the fire. And it was a small fire and it was just starting when the police department actually saw it. Because they started to look at all abandoned homes or the homes that are being used, and the police officer saw it and then we went ahead and secured the scene."
About an hour later, around 4:40 a.m., a third fire was reported a few blocks away at a home at 91 Park Place in the Lincolnville neighborhood.
Firefighters said the two-story home was fully involved in flames when they arrived.
Firefighters also noticed multiple downed power lines in the neighborhood and requested Florida Power and Light to shut off power to the neighborhood for the safety of the firefighters battling the fire.
The home collapsed during the fire, and a home next to it was also damaged by the blaze. Investigators said it would take some time to determine the cause of the fire because of the collapse.
The St. Augustine Fire Marshal is also investigating a fourth fire to a home at 34 Cordova Street, about 80 yards from the original fire, that happened before 6:30 a.m.
Officials said the fire was the result of arson.
All four homes that caught fire Monday morning are at least 100 years old.
"This is something that's an anomaly to me," Growick said. "And doing this for 33 years, I've haven't had four fires like this before, but I don't think (the community has) to worry about it, No. 1 because we respond quickly. Our Police Department responds quickly, so we can actually mitigate the circumstances, especially with these fires. People there don't have to worry about that."
Growick said the St. Augustine Fire Marshal's Office is investigating along with the police department.
"We work together as a team," he said. "They'll do their work by doing interviews, by looking at videos. And whatever they find, we'll all come to the table along with the State Fire Marshal's Office investigators and we'll see what we've got so we can put out story together to see if we can find out if someone actually nearby. Because we'll do the history, and there's a lot of video that's been going on, so the Police Department's looking at the video."
Growick said investigators will also take samples from all four fires and see if the accelerants match.
Lisa Saad, who lives near where the fires were set, said she'll be watching her neighborhood closely Monday night but has faith investigators will find out who's responsible.
"I would give them a chance to catch the men, because arson investigators have all those little tools they use," Saad said. "So I have faith if they use them they'll get caught."
Anyone with any information about the arson fires is asked to call 877-NO-ARSON (662-7766) or Crime Stoppers at 888-277-8477. Callers can remain anonymous and could be eligible for a cash reward.