The hunt for an arsonist who set five houses on fire in the Laney-Walker community early Friday turned to a pedestrian who purchased three gallons of gas at a store just blocks away, investigators said.
The customer at the Pump-N-Shop on Walton Way matched the description of a man seen running from behind the houses that burned on Hopkins and Summer streets, said Augusta-Richmond County Fire Department Deputy Chief Carl Scott.
The gas was purchased around midnight, and the homes were fully engulfed by about 5 a.m.
"(The customer) had one of those real big gas cans," said Keenan Stewart, the store's assistant manager.
The homes were gutted in a two-alarm fire that left two families homeless. One resident was taken to University Hospital after inhaling smoke, witnesses said.
Fire officials received a call at 5:12 a.m. Friday about a house fire on Summer Street. When firefighters arrived three minutes later, they found four vacant homes and one duplex in the vicinity of Summer and Hopkins streets ablaze, said Battalion Chief J.R. Freeman III.
Fire officials said the fires were set in the vacant homes and spread to the duplex, the only occupied home on the block.
Arson is suspected because the flames could not have spread through all five houses, said Chief Freeman, the incident commander.
"They're too far apart (for the flames) to go from home to home," Chief Freeman said. "We've got a full investigative team."
Six engines and two ladder trucks were called as about 30 firefighters worked to contain the blaze that consumed a city block and was visible for miles.
"Look at these things," Chief Freeman said, pointing to the charred remains. "They're gutted."
By 8 a.m., smoke was barely visible from the homes as curious neighbors walked or rode bicycles by the scene to get a closer view.
Fire Department Lt. G.B. Hannan put on rubber gloves and walked inside one of the homes to investigate. Later, he came outside and interviewed a teary-eyed Rose Mary Allen, one of the women who lost her home.
"It's devastating. I don't have anything," she said.
Ms. Allen said her neighbor, Mary Williams, noticed flames coming from her kitchen and banged on the adjoining wall in their duplex, telling her to call 911. Ms. Allen, who lived alone at 1027 Summer St., called police, grabbed her housecoat, turned off the breaker box and hurried outside.
"When I got outside, that house was on fire and that house was on fire on the other side, and they said two other homes were on fire. And they just went to burning," Ms. Allen said as she sat on the porch of a vacant house across the street. "It was't no accident, not all at one time like that."
Ms. Williams lived in the same duplex with her 15-year-old granddaughter, Tameka, and both escaped the fire. Ms. Williams was taken to University Hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation, witnesses said.
Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (706) 828-3851 firstname.lastname@example.org.