3 charged in fire at school under construction

Damage to Arundel site estimated at $1.5 million

3 charged in fire at Arundel school site

September 29, 2004|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

Three Glen Burnie residents were taken into custody early yesterday after police and fire officials accused them of setting as many as nine fires inside the future Marley Elementary School, causing an estimated $1.5 million in damage to the building under construction.

Charles Edward Sawyer, 20, faces charges including arson, burglary, destruction of property and other offenses related to the fire, said Capt. James Teare Sr. of the Anne Arundel County police. Sawyer, who was being held last night at the county detention center, had a bail review hearing set for this morning.

Two 17-year-olds face similar charges as juveniles and were released to the custody of their guardians. Police did not give their identities because of their age.

All three were apprehended a little more than a mile from the two-alarm blaze after a report of several people throwing flammable liquid at a vehicle.

Anne Arundel school officials were assessing the damage yesterday to decide whether children can move into the new building from the current Marley Elementary after the winter holiday break as planned.

Damage was confined to the front of the new building, said Mark Moran, the school system's supervisor of projects. Two classroom wings were unharmed.

"We've never had vandalism this bad in my memory," said Moran, who has worked in Anne Arundel County for 17 years.

Just across the parking lot, the current Marley Elementary opened for classes as usual, said Principal Nina C. Griffith. Guidance counselors talked to the children about the damage.

"They're asking the same question as everybody else: `Why would anybody do this to our new building?'" she said.

The blaze was reported about 2:50 a.m. by a passing motorist who called 911 to report flames through the roof of the new building, said Division Chief John M. Scholz of the Anne Arundel County Fire Department.

It took 58 firefighters about an hour to bring the fire under control, Scholz said.

Initially they began their attack on the roof. Fire began pushing through the windows, so they entered the building, he said.

Firefighter Brian Bond, 39, of Hanover was taken to North Arundel Hospital for heat exhaustion. Another firefighter was treated at the scene, Scholz said.

About the same time, the three suspects were taken into custody at Marley Station Road and Baltimore-Annapolis Boulevard. They were later charged.

Scholz said the school fire was unrelated to a series of minor fires set in the western part of the county since July. Fire officials are investigating the blazes in vacant buildings.

Yesterday, construction crews were vacuuming up water and clearing debris. Several piles of construction materials had been set on fire in corridors and in the media center.

Epithets and other graffiti were written in black paint on several walls and doors in that room.

The kitchen suffered the worst damage. In a small food-storage room, fire had burned through the roof, Moran said. The area's cement brick walls were still hot hours after the blaze. Black soot soiled the roof and top half of the kitchen's walls and spilled out of vents into the adjacent cafetorium.

Griffith inspected the damage all morning and reported back to her staff. She was trying to figure out why anyone would set fire to a school.

"I don't see what pleasure you would get out of this," she said.

Marley's building was constructed more than 50 years ago, Griffith said. Fourth- and fifth-graders are housed in seven portable classrooms, and pre-kindergartners and kindergartners are in a separate small building.

"My biggest desire is just to get them into one building," she said.

Hearing news reports, parents were concerned about whether the school would open in January as expected.

"There's absolutely no reason. That's pure malicious doings," said Gerald Smith as he picked up his son, Nicky, from kindergarten yesterday morning.

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