The New Orleans Fire Department is investigating whether an arsonist was behind a five-alarm blaze that destroyed four unoccupied buildings in St. Claude on Thursday morning. Investigators ruled the fire "suspicious" but were still looking into the cause, according to a department news release.
Firefighters arrived to the scene at Press and Urquhart streets just after 1 a.m. and had the blaze under control by 3:20 a.m. They said an unoccupied warehouse was destroyed and there was damage to residences. Some 81 firefighters responded to the call, including one who sustained minor injuries. The American Red Cross assisted three families who had to evacuate from the surrounding area.
The Rev. Willie Williams said he owned the warehouse on the corner of Press and Urquhart streets for the last 15 years. He said his ministry, Delinquency Alternative Program Ministry, used the space to distribute donated clothing, food and building supplies to families in the neighborhood.
Williams said officials had recently shut off all electricity to the warehouse after they found that people had been stealing it to power the building next door.
"It's going to hurt a lot of people because every year we do school supplies and toy giveaways," he said. "I think we're still going to be able to do it, just going to have to find another location."
Williams' niece, Nicki Price, 29, said the family was upset at the prospect that an arsonist was behind the fire. "It's horrible," she said. "It's sad that somebody would do that, especially to a ministry."
The owner of the other three properties, Erik Blake, said the fire appeared to have started in his area and spread to Williams' warehouse. Blake pointed to recent blight problems with a nearby house that caught fire about a month ago.
That illegal rental property, which was owned by landlord Fred Morgan, went up in flames Aug. 6, leaving at least 10 people homeless. The city had declared the two-story ramshackle house at 2816 Urquhart St. unfit for habitation July 31, but a number of residents continued to live in the building.
NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune reported on the dangerous conditions at Urquhart Street and two other Morgan properties in May, detailing a number of fire code violations including the use of extension cords and power strips to carry electricity from a neighboring building.
Photos by Joshua Brasted
Written by Naiomi Martin