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Police Investigate Apartment Building Arson

by and on December 24, 2014 10:20 AM

Some State College residents had to evacuate their apartments in the middle of the night after police say someone set a fire in the utility room of the Sutton Court apartment building.

Marvin Laventre, a resident of the apartment building at the corner of Prospect Avenue and University Drive, says he woke up early Wednesday morning to the sound of a smoke alarm and saw black smoke coming in from under his door.

"I've been through a fire before and I know that smoke can strangle you, so I didn't even take any chances," Laventre says. "I crawled out through my window and called 911."

At about 4:10 a.m., State College police say they received a call about smoke coming from the basement at 668 East Prospect Avenue. The building houses dozens of student rentals. Fortunately, most Penn State students are out of town because of the Christmas holiday. According to a police news release, several apartments in the building were occupied at the time of the blaze, but all occupants were evacuated without injury.

Police say that an initial investigation revealed that someone doused the cleaning supplies in the utility room with accelerant before setting them on fire.

Dave Felice of the Centre Region Code Agency inspected the building on Wednesday morning. He says that the fire alarm control panel in the utility room was damaged by the fire, but adds that each apartment still has working smoke detectors. The utility room included such safety features as fire resistant dry wall and insulation, which Felice says contained the blaze until the Alpha Fire Company arrived.

"This could have been devastating," Felice says. "All of our fire safety measures worked the way they were supposed to."

Steve Bair, fire director with the Centre Region Council of Governments, says the Alpha Fire Company was on scene shortly after police got there. He says the fire was beginning to creep upwards and was visible from the street by the time fire crews arrived. 

About 20 volunteer firefighters were on-scene and had the fire extinguished in about 20 minutes -- before it could spread to the upstairs apartments. Bair says that there was some minor structural and smoke damage to the basement of the building, but adds that none of the apartments suffered damage.

Fire crews were at the building until about 7:30 this morning, Bair says. Though about thirty percent of the volunteer Alpha Fire Department is made of Penn State students who are currently out of town, Bair says the department was well-equipped to handle Wednesday morning's blaze.

Bair recommends that State College residents to watch for suspicious activity in their neighborhoods and keep their doors locked, especially if they will be traveling for the holidays.

The Centre Region Fire Marshall and the police department will continue the investigation, though Bair is not sure how long the investigation may take. State College police ask anyone with information to call 814-234-7150 or to submit an anonymous tip through the department website.

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Steve Bauer was the Managing Editor of StateCollege.com. Steve and his wife Trina are longtime area residents. They reside in State College along with a wacky Golden Retriever named Izzy.


Michael Martin Garrett is a reporter and editor for StateCollege.com who covers local government, the courts, the arts and writes the Keeping the Faith column. He's a Penn State alumnus, a published poet and the bassist in a local indie rock band.
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