NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) – In the past 16 months, there have been five suspicious fires in the West Ghent neighborhood in Norfolk.
The most recent happened on June 11 around 9:15 p.m. The McGee family was nestled in their living room. A movie was playing on the TV. Their two young boys, ages 4 and 6, were falling asleep on the couch.
“All of a sudden I heard car horns honking and commotion on the streets,” said Tiffany McGee. “I went to the door to see what was going on and there was a man jumping up and down waving his arms.”
When Tiffany looked outside she saw her car was on fire.
Tiffany and her husband Pat quickly got their two kids and dog out of the house to safety. Then watched from afar as the fire spread from the cars in the driveway to their home. The McGees say the spent 30 minutes on hold with 9-1-1 waiting to report the fire, watching the flames get bigger and bigger.
“I know they have a really busy job,” said Tiffany McGee. “I know that it’s been really hard with employment and things like that. So I don’t know if they have shortages. I don’t know what the situation is, but I feel like 30 minutes on hold to report a fire is too long.”
The McGees say they have a lot to be thankful for, like the young Navy Sailor who first saw the fire in their driveway and quickly did everything he could to alert the family.
“That kid ran at my house to get my wife and kids out. That kid is an absolute hero, said Pat McGee. “I will be grateful to him forever for doing that.”
The family is also grateful to the firefighters who showed up to put out the flames.
“Those firefighters literally came up to a burning structure and walked right at it and put the fire out. So those guys are the most amazing human beings ever,” added Pat McGee.
McGee soon learned the young Sailor who saved his family saw something concerning. “He noticed that there was a man made fire. He described it as a box, or rags or something, and an incendiary device, physically under my wife’s gas tank.”
This was the fifth in a string of fires on or near the corner of Redgate Avenue and Claremont Avenue.
The first was a car fire in February of 2020. The owner of the car, Anna Swartley, told 10 On Your Side that fire investigators found a tiki torch and a can of citronella underneath the car. The car was parked outside of an apartment building.
Two months later another fire on April 14, 2020. This time it was Swartley’s home.
“I felt the explosion. I felt the entire house shake,” said Swartley. “I grabbed my son out of my bed just as the flames were coming through the window and about to touch him.”
Five people were inside the apartment building at 1122 Redgate Ave at the time. Everyone got out safely. Everyone also had to find a new place to live.
According to the owner of the building, Jamie Jones, someone had placed a trash can by the gas meters in the alleyway on the side on the building and lit the trash can on fire. The fire then quickly spread.
A little over a month later on May 31, 2020 the now empty building at 1122 Redgate caught fire again. Jones said the fire started in an upstairs storage room.
This time Jones believes they caught the suspected arsonist in the act. “We have video footage of the perpetrator going up, dressed in a hoodie and a mask and had what looked like a 2-liter bottle of some accelerant.”
Norfolk Fire-Rescue posted the video footage to its Facebook page on June 1, 2020.
Jones said he definitely believes the neighborhood is being targeted.
Fast forward to June 2 of this year, another car caught fire in the middle of the night on Redgate Avenue.
The next and last fire was the one at the McGee residence on June 11.
“I started to piece together these other fires, pretty immediately. And I realized that I’ve been a victim of arson. I really just want the police and fire department and all the people that are involved, and the community to focus on the fact that a person is lighting fires of structures where there is men, women and kids inside. I don’t think that’s cool. I think that should stop. I think we should catch that guy. And I think we should do it like right now,” said Patrick McGee.
No one was injured, but their house is currently unlivable.
“Everyone’s really scared that something bad, something even worse is going to happen,” said Tiffany McGee. “Let the community come together and help solve this crime before someone dies.”
10 On Your Side reached out to the Norfolk Fire Marshal’s Office. They sent us this response:
“There have, in fact, been a number of incidents in the Ghent section of the city which have involved both structures and vehicles. Unfortunately, all I can release right now is that the investigations are ongoing– our FMO is aggressively working on the cases in order to find some answers. As soon as they complete their investigation, I will be sure to reach out to you with more information.”
We asked fire victim Anna Swartley if she believed enough was being done by investigators.
“I don’t think enough was shared. I think that was the issue,” said Swartley. I don’t think that we were given enough information to feel safe in our neighborhood to go on after this. I felt like my part wasn’t taken seriously in this fire. Being put in danger and my son being put in danger, I think it was looked at as a property issue and not the actual endangerment of lives.”
Tiffany McGee wants more information from officials as well.
“Because we don’t really know that this is being investigated as an arson. We still don’t know that.”
“I understand this is challenging,” added Patrick McGee. “A lot of the evidence probably burned. That makes sense to me. That said, I believe if there’s a person that’s lighting buildings on fire, and there’s women and children in there. I can’t imagine something that we should prioritize higher.”
If you have information that can help this investigation, you’re asked to contact the Norfolk Fire Marshal’s Office at 757-664-6604.
The community also set up a GoFundMe for the McGee family, if you would like to contribute.