JAMESTOWN – This week marks the fifth anniversary of a series of arson fires that rocked the Village of Falconer and City of Jamestown in 2017. Local officials are now reflecting on the destruction.
On Fri., Mar. 22, 2017, the Village of Falconer’s skyline was changed forever.
“It was kind of just surreal, it was the whole village, it seemed like, was going down on the westside,” explained Former Village of Falconer Mayor James Rensel when reflecting on one of the largest fires in village history at 39 W. Main St. Among the first on the scene was former Falconer Volunteer Fire Department Chief Charles Piazza.
“Within, I think 10 minutes, to 15 minutes, almost every Falconer member was here, then all of our mutual aid that came in,” explained Piazza, who was amazed that with a fire of this size, no one was hurt. “It was just amazing, with that many firemen on the ground, we had one knee injury for a fireman slipping.”
Around 30 various fire departments responded to aid Falconer crews in fighting flames. It took several hours for the fire to be extinguished, and several months more before cleanup could get underway. However, one thing was immediate, the community’s support for victims.
“I’m not originally a native Falconer resident, but the people that were, were very on the scene, and involved in what was happening,” said Rensel. “It was an all-hands-on deck type of thing, after the fire, nothing else was on our minds as for what we were going to do to replace this spot here.”
Since then, the village is looking for a developer to bring new life to the property. The pandemic, officials tell us, has delayed that process a bit, but those in Falconer are hopeful for the future.
At the time, officials say they did not suspect arson was the cause. However, following a local and state fire investigation, the cause was deemed, and a suspect was named: 19-year-old Jonathan Young.
Young was charged with nearly a dozen fires, including three at 621 E. 6th St. during the month of March. Now-retired Jamestown Police Chief Harry Snellings told reporters during a press conference announcing Young’s arrest that his investigators used evidence from those fires to advance their investigation.
“We were confident he was our suspect at our three fires at 621,” said Snellings. “As video surfaced, and there were other pieces of evidence, helped us tie him into the other fires.”
The majority of the fires took place on Friday, March 24, 2017 when emergency resources were stretched thin. At the time, the current Deputy Chief of the Jamestown Fire Department, Matthew Coon, was tasked with dispatching crews at the Chautauqua County 911 Center.
“To send the first structure fire call out was pretty routine, we had no expectation that other incidents were going to be developing in short order,” said Coon. “As you are already aware, Jamestown’s resources got committed to the first incident, then as the incidents kept unfolding beyond that point, we had to branch off and pivot a little bit.”
The Fire Department’s main power, Coon tells us, was stretched to the brink, which is why Departments like the Village of Falconer responded to lend a hand. A weary eyed and tired Chief Piazza is among the many who answered the call.
“Second Assistant Chief Marcus Fosburg called me, and said ‘I need you now’, something about 7/11, Robo and 10th Street, and once I got my bearings, I looked at my phone, and realized that we got called to the city,” said Piazza. “When I got there, there was a lot going on that night, it was chaotic, you had fire trucks everywhere, moving block to block basically.”
From 6th and Winsor Streets, to Crossman and Lakeview Avenue, to West 11th Street to West 10th Street, four fires burned simultaneously in a four hour period. Suspicions were high.
“From a firefighters intuition standpoint, the short answer would be yes,” explained Coon. “To have a succession of incidents keep occurring, certainly would raise a flag in our mind, to say that something is abnormal here.”
Even five years later, Coon says the blazes remain top of mind.
“They are catastrophic events, whether the property is empty, vacant, abandoned or occupied, there is always a life danger with a fire, that’s going to affect the neighborhood, the morale of the neighborhood,” said Coon. “Even though we are five years in, there is still that degree of heightened awareness, that when fires occur, residents of the neighborhood are very vigilant.”
In addition to the fire’s in New York, at the time Young was also accused, and later plead guilty to, arsons in Pennsylvania. The case against Young in New York was dismissed by the State Appellate Court who agreed with Chautauqua County Court Judge David Foley’s ruling that disqualified statements Young made to police in PA about the alleged Jamestown crimes.
Matt Hummel contributed to this report.