Similarities In 4 Mall Fires Investigated

March 08, 1992|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Staff writer

State fire officials are investigating similarities in four arson fires at The Mall in Columbia since mid-February.

Two fires were setTuesday, at Country Interiors and Sears. The incidents came 15 days after other arson fires were discovered in the drapery departments atHecht's and Woodward & Lothrop stores.

"There is a pattern that we're examining, but I cannot expand on that," said Deputy State Fire Marshall Bob Thomas.

The mall management has stepped up security to prevent other arson attempts.

"What I can tell you is we are taking these incidents really seriously and are working closely with the county Fire Department and police to stop it," said Danielle Morgenthaler, manager of sales and marketing.

She would not describe how security will be improved, however.

Fire officials said the two fires Tuesday started a few minutes apart.

A sofa in Country Interiors was set on fire at 4:41 p.m., but employees quickly doused the blaze with a hand extinguisher. The store was closed less than an hour.

"Someone came in and very quickly and very quietly set fire to the sofa," said Carolyn Gaughan, owner. "No customer was in the store in that area."

She reported damage at $1,200 -- the price of the sofa.

Minutes after that fire, another one was reported at Sears, which is located at the opposite end of the mall. A sales manager saw a bathrobe on fire and took it to a nearby restroom, where she drenched it with water.

"If you open up the palm of your hand, and look at the half-size of that, that's the damage that was done," said Paul Capel, Sears' loss prevention manager.

"It's one of those things that's hard to determine," he said. "It'slike shoplifting. You never know why people do things like that."

The fires set at Hecht's and Woodward & Lothrop department stores began almost simultaneously. Sprinkler systems in both stores extinguished the blazes. Damage in both fires amounted to more than $250,000.

There have been no injuries.

State fire inspectors ask that anyone with information or a description of possible suspects call the arson hot line at (800) 492-7529.

The State Fire Marshal's office is offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to an arrest or anindictment.

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