Arson suspected in Forbes Library fire; damage estimated at $5,000

Last modified: Friday, July 18, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — Police are looking for someone they say set a fire in a stairwell in Forbes Library Monday night causing an estimated $5,000 in damage.

Police Capt. Jody Kasper said that at 8:44 p.m., someone used an accelerant to douse the carpet of a stairwell, lit it on fire and then fled. A patron and a library employee used fire extinguishers to put out the fire and firefighters checked the area when they arrived, library director Janet Moulding said Tuesday.

There are no suspects, according to Kasper.

No one was injured and the damage is limited to the rug and a wooden bannister, said Assistant Fire Chief Duane Nichols. The stairwell that burned is near the front door, connecting the lobby to the second floor. Moulding said that the library’s second floor will be closed until a restoration company can clean all of the white powder left over from the fire extinguishers.

At around 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, a half-hour before the library was due to open, employees were posting “stairway closed” signs at the bottom of the steps, blocked off with caution tape. A police officer stood guard in the lobby and later assisted two other officers in photographing evidence. Kasper said an officer was posted at the library all night as a precaution.

Moulding stood on the second landing of the stairwell, which was littered with bits of ash and burned carpet as well as the white powder. She lamented the damage to the carved banister and rungs, which she said probably dates back to the library’s construction in 1893.

“We’ll have to replace all of this. We’ll have to call a custom woodworker who can recreate this,” she said, gesturing to the charred wood that stretched from the landing to the second floor. Some of a wall next to the stairs was also blackened. She said Building Inspector Louis Hasbrouck was due to inspect the stairs Tuesday but they appeared structurally sound.

A square of carpet from one stair was missing, which Moulding said police cut out and took as evidence.

At the top of the stairs, white powder coated the wings of a bird sculpture by artist Elliot Offner and had settled on every surface nearby. Moulding said special art restoration specialists will be called to clean the powder off local artwork on display in the Hosmer Gallery on the second floor and other paintings decorating the walls.

The area did not smell smoky, but all the windows on the second floor were open and several fans were blowing the interior air outside.

Custodian Mark Toczydlowski said at the library Tuesday that he was cleaning in the lounge about 15 minutes before closing time at 9 p.m. Monday when he heard the fire alarm go off and someone yelling, “Fire!”

“I came out and saw the flames so I grabbed a fire extinguisher,” he said. A patron who had done the same was already attacking the fire and the two quickly put it out.

He said he never saw who lit the fire and could not tell if anyone was fleeing because everyone was exiting the building because of the fire alarms. Patrons on the second floor all went to the rear stairwell that exits onto the back parking lot, he said.

Kasper said investigators from the state fire marshal’s office and the Northampton Police Department remained on scene for several hours collecting evidence and interviewing witnesses, but none reported seeing who set the fire.

The library has had disturbances involving patrons in the past, Moulding said, but this is the first fire she has seen in her 14 years on the job. She said the library is frequented by 800 to 900 people every day, and some of those come in because they have nowhere else to go.

“It’s a public library and everyone is welcome. We certainly have people who have more issues than others — people with bad social skills, some angry people,” she said.

She said the library has a book full of reports from earlier incidents involving patrons who caused disturbances, which it has provided to police as they investigate who may have lit the fire. “I totally can’t think of any reason someone would want to do this, but obviously, someone did,” she said.

Toczydlowski said he thinks it might be a good idea for the library to install security cameras for incidents like this. “We don’t know who is going to do what,” he said.

Both Moulding and Toczydlowski agreed that it was fortunate the fire did not destroy any books and was in a very visible place so it was noticed quickly. Toczydlowski said the huge flames and billowing smoke were impossible to miss.

Moulding said the arson has not affected her sense of safety at the library. “There is some worry that this might not be an isolated incident and someone might try again,” she said, but she still feels safe there.

Meanwhile, library employees are ready to answer a lot of questions from patrons about the second floor being off-limits. Moulding said the library’s DVD collection on the second floor is extremely popular.

“We’re calling cleaners and hoping it’s going to be closed for just a few days,” she said. “But they’re going to have to take every book and DVD off every shelf, and that’s going to take time.”

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.