Mayor, chief weigh in on suspected arsons

By Jim Hagerty

ROCKFORD – Local, state and federal units are now investigating what officials are calling at least three acts of arson.

The multi-unit investigation now spans four fires, including the one that gutted the Hanley Furniture building June 25 as customers were eating inside the adjacent Magpie restaurant.

The Hanley has since been razed. The cause of the fire is unknown, but officials say it started in the rear of the building.

A fire that engulfed the three-story home of El Olivo Grocery at 301 7th St. also started outside near the rear. That building and the adjacent El Navegante Bar will likely be total losses, RFD said.

Officials say another small fire in a vacant building in the 800 block of South Main Street started from inside.

“Arson is definitely something we are suspecting in a lot of these fires,” Rockford Fire Division Chief of Administration and Fire Prevention Matt Knott said. “It’s quite clear we have a fire problem.”

Knott said while each fire was the result of human involvement, the South Main Street Blaze does not appear to be the work of an arsonist. Whether the ones set intentionally are linked to the same person is also not known at this time.

“All of our investigators have been working on these fires since last Sunday (June 25),” Knott said. “We’ve worked a lot of different leads. We have some video tapes of some different fires. We’ve talked to numerous witnesses and also some people of interest.”

The vacant 616 7th St. was razed Thursday morning, just hours after the fire was extinguished, leading some to question whether a cause can be determined once the building has been leveled. Knott said the 7th Street and Hanley tear-downs were controlled demolitions, which allow for more thorough investigations.

“It’s a technique we’ve used before and we’ll continue to do so,” the division chief said. “In no way, shape or form does a controlled demolition impede our investigation. It actually helps us. It allows us to get into these buildings safely and effectively.”

The El Olivo Grocery building on South Main is reportedly set for future demolition. According to witnesses, private fireworks were being ignited in the area before the building caught fire at around 11:30 p.m., Sunday, July 2.

“We’ve been ravaged by these fires,” Mayor Tom McNamara said at a Thursday press conference. “And we’ve been incredibly fortunate that there’s been no loss of life.”

McNamara said partnering with other agencies gives Rockford more tools to find causes for recent fire and prevent future acts of arson. Increased police patrols will be conducted. Surveillance camera footage is also being reviewed.

Knott and the mayor said all potential causes are being probed and that nothing is being ruled out.

McNamara also addressed the rash of rumors circulating on social media, most of which were centered on the Hanley fire over the past two weeks. He urged users to refrain from jumping to unfounded conclusions while encouraging anyone with helpful information to come forward.

“It is frustrating to hear,” McNamara said. “It’s like we suddenly have a million-and-one fire experts in the city of Rockford. Let the professionals do their job.”

Knott added that while citizens should be concerned about fires in vacant buildings, people are more likely to be affected by fires in their homes. He said now is the time to ensure that smoke detectors and fire extinguishers are in working order.

Estimated costs to the city for the four fires are still being totaled. Developer Justin Fern said he has lost at least $700,000 plus what he spent that last 18 months planning the Hanley Building’s $9 million upgrade.

While neither party had comment on the cost of the demolition, because it is an ongoing legal matter, the city announced last week that it plans to recoup an estimated tear-down cost of $500,000 from Fern’s companies.

Additional firefighters, overtime and $5,000 in damages to the BMO Harris Bank Center from the Hanley fire are expected to be part of the city’s costs. R.

This story has been updated.

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