Questions remain after Feb. arson fire

Investigators seek motive

store owners regroup

At least $300,000 in damage


March 08, 2004|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

Satheeshan Pathmanathan walked past a charred counter, dodged wires dangling from a fire-ravaged ceiling and shined the narrow beam of his small flashlight on some of the damage: a melted cash register, four toasted telephones that once rang incessantly with pizza orders, plastic pallets of deformed 2-liter soda bottles.

In the shop next door, Moon Su Park handed unsellable liquor bottles to insurance company workers, helping them inventory items ruined by smoke and heat in his liquor store.

A fire that broke out about 3:30 a.m. Feb. 28 all but destroyed Pathmanathan's pizza-and-sub shop, Philly's Best. Park's liquor store endured mostly smoke damage, although firefighters had to cut a gaping hole in a wall to combat the fire next door.

Now both businessmen are scrambling to reopen their stores as soon as possible. But fire investigators determined the blaze was an act of arson - someone threw at least one Molotov cocktail through the pizza store's window - and that conclusion has rattled the shop owners. Authorities don't have any suspects, and the Police Department is offering a $500 reward for information about the incident.

Park, 52, who owns the Elkridge building, said he doesn't know who would want to hurt his tenant. Pathmanathan, meanwhile, has his own theory.

"Somebody set the fire to put me down," Pathmanathan, 31, said during an interview at his Columbia apartment. He said he's never had a problem with employees, doesn't have any enemies that he knows of, and that no one has threatened him before. He doesn't think it was a hate crime.

The fire has been the first significant - and disturbing - setback for these two immigrant business owners, whose lives have taken similar trajectories since they arrived in the United States in the early 1990s. And the toll of the blaze is being felt well beyond Elkridge, particularly by Pathmanathan and his family.

The Sri Lankan native immigrated to the United States 10 years ago as a chemistry student but never finished his degree because he got too busy with work, he said.

He said he worked in various local pizza jobs, including serving as a manager at another Elkridge pizza restaurant for several years. When he decided to go into business for himself, he used his savings, tapped relatives and credit cards for money, and took out a personal loan to open Philly's Best in October 2002.

Pathmanathan, the eldest of six brothers, employs one brother, Dinesh, and also gives him $2,000 dollars for tuition every semester while he attends school at the Catonsville campus of the Community College of Baltimore County. He sends another $3,500 every semester to a brother studying in New Zealand. And once a month, his mother and other brothers, who still live in Sri Lanka, receive about $1,000 from him.

"We have to get back to work, otherwise there are a lot of people who are going to be in trouble," Pathmanathan said. One of his cousins, who lives and works with him, went to apply for a job last week at a nearby Papa John's pizza restaurant.

"Work and home - that's it," Pathmanathan said. "There's no money left to enjoy."

"He's the one that takes care of our family," said Dinesh Pathmanathan while standing outside the pizza shop last week. "We have four brothers who need money. Our family in Sri Lanka is very poor. ... I called yesterday my mom and she was crying. She said, `I'm going to temple and praying for you.'"

Serious setback

For Park and his wife, Ok Sun, the fire was their first major obstacle since they sold their small paper products factory in South Korea and moved to the United States 12 years ago with their two sons. Park's parents and siblings were already living here, and his brothers helped the family get established.

Over the years, he and his wife owned liquor and deli stores in Washington and Northern Virginia. They bought the Elkridge property in the 6100 block of Meadowridge Road in June and moved to Columbia to be closer to family.

"We like very much this area," Park said. "We are very lucky."

Since the fire, "We can't sleep every night," his wife said.

They said they're worried about being closed for too long and losing customers. They don't have other employees - the couple typically works 12- to 14-hour days. One of their sons, a student at the University of Maryland, College Park, helps occasionally on weekends.

"The area customers are very nice," Ok Sun Park said. "I don't want to lose customers."

Investigators said Pathmanathan's pizza shop sustained more than $300,000 in damage, but the Parks did not have an estimate on damage to their shop. They said they lost inventory and have to replace ceiling tiles, wash carpets and clean everything that reeks of smoke.

`It was an arson'

"Within 15 to 20 minutes, we had figured out it was an arson," said Battalion Chief Michael Faith, who is in charge of fire investigations for the Howard County Fire Department and was at the scene the day of the fire.

In Howard County, setting fires with Molotov cocktails "is not a common thing, but it is a method that is used periodically in arson cases because people can do it and get away fairly quick," Faith said.

Of 114 fires in Howard County that required investigation last year, 45 were ruled to be arson. Investigators made arrests in 22 percent of those cases - a rate better than the national average of 15 percent, Faith said.

But that's little consolation at the moment for Pathmanathan and the Parks. All they can do is wait and see whether investigators can successfully piece together a case and find suspects, and hope their insurance companies will cover their losses and help them get back on their feet.

"I just want to tell my customers that we'll be back," Pathmanathan said.

Police and fire investigators request that anyone with information about the arson call 410-313-3700. The $500 reward is for information that leads to an arrest and conviction.

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