Apartments at center of suspicious fires are on city property

Johnnie Sankey wants the area around the now burned out buildings cleaned up.
Johnnie Sankey wants the area around the now burned out buildings cleaned up.

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Two suspicious fires involving a couple of vacant buildings on Caroline Street in downtown Montgomery have investigators busy. Firefighters received the call around 9:20am and rushed to the scene of the blaze at the corner of Clayton and Caroline Streets.

The fires, burning at buildings on both sides of the street, consumed the abandoned Caroline Street Apartments. Those apartments are just two blocks from the Federal Courthouse.

One firefighter suffered a minor hip injury while fighting the blaze. Davis said no other officers or citizens were hurt.

Investigators are calling the fires "suspicious". Assistant Chief William Davis of the Montgomery Fire Department said the fires were naturally suspicious because the complex has been vacant for some time and has no power or other sources of ignition to produce a fire. The fact that fires at two different buildings came in simultaneously adds to the suspiciousness of the case, David said.

Neighbors say the fire is only the beginning of a laundry list of concerns about the property. Johnnie Sankey, owner of nearby Isaiah's Restaurant, says she's surprised the fire happened, but not shocked. Sankey, who opened her restaurant nearly ten years ago, works with other residents in an effort to redevelop the area, but she says vagrants who use the empty buildings keep the property across the street from Isaiah's in disrepair.

"We have squatters over there now...and people have come in and torn the place apart," Sankey explained. "...Truly an eyesore." She's even gone so far as to pick a camera and take pictures on the trashed lands around the apartments. She believes the rundown sites are hurting the community and the city of Montgomery.

"We have people that [SIC] come here from all over the world, literally. Our last guests were here from France. And, of course, people like to walk downtown...the first thing they're going to see is this eyesore!" Now, she's hoping the blaze will light a fire to demolish the buildings and spur new development.

The city of Montgomery actually owns the property, which was in the spotlight just a few months ago. It was where the city held a 24-hour long charette brainstorming session to determine what would be the best use for the land.

For now, the city is conducting an asbestos test along with several other environmental tests that must be completed before the apartments can be demolished. That work should be done by the end of 2010 or the beginning of 2011.

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