A resident of a Shadyside mental health group home described himself to arson investigators as a "hero" who warned his housemates about a fire on the roof of the building next door.
But detectives charged him with arson early Monday after witnesses spotted him throwing flaming towels onto the neighboring rooftop, sparking a blaze that badly damaged the home and sent three firefighters to hospitals with burns.
James Casson, 18, who lives in a group home owned by Residential Care Services Inc., also was charged with risking a catastrophe, criminal mischief and reckless endangerment stemming from the fire in the 900 block of Maryland Avenue. He had lived in the group home for less than a week before the incident, the first the facility has seen in more than two decades, said executive director Beth Monteverde.
The eight people living there have been diagnosed with an array of mental health problems. The home, where staff work around the clock and do routine bed checks, aims to teach adults daily life skills such as cooking and socialization, Ms. Monteverde said.
Employees there were reviewing what happened about 2:30 a.m. Monday, when Mr. Casson was seen climbing atop the roof and started torching the towels. Firefighters found the roof burning and heavy smoke on the third floor. They suffered first- and second-degree burns on their faces, necks, hands and legs during what is known as a "flashover," when items on the third floor reached temperatures of more than 1,100 degrees and ignited simultaneously, Pittsburgh arson Detective Michael Burns said.
Firefighters Jeffrey Loeffert, 37, and Ben Sovyak, 26, suffered second-degree burns and were treated at UPMC Mercy. A third firefighter, Keith Ott, 31, suffered similar burns as well as a broken hand and was taken to West Penn Hospital. All were released later Monday, Detective Burns said.
The home's owner, Michael Iannone, escaped unharmed. A third-floor tenant was out of town. Investigators estimated the damage to the home at $200,000.
Detectives say they don't have a motive. Mr. Casson told them he awoke to the smell of something burning and noticed a fire on the roof next door. He alerted a staff member at the home, who said she couldn't see anything and urged him to go back to sleep. When the smell persisted, Mr. Casson claimed he climbed onto the roof and tried to throw water onto the fire before he jumped onto the fire escape and tried to alert the other residents of the home, Detective John Gilkey wrote in a criminal complaint.
"He kept saying that he was the 'Hero,' " the complaint says.
But after detectives informed Mr. Casson that a witness saw him light at least three towels and throw them, he "became very upset and belligerent and requested a lawyer," the complaint says.
He was lodged in the Allegheny County Jail and won't be allowed to return to the Maryland Avenue group home upon his release, Ms. Monteverde said.
Sadie Gurman: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1878. First Published September 18, 2012 4:00 AM