Man charged with arson in historic home fire | Crime | The Press and Standard
by The Press and Standard | August 25, 2016 5:00 am
Last Updated: August 24, 2016 at 1:05 pm
A Hampton Street man is in custody, charged with allegedly setting fire to his historic home Sunday afternoon.
As firefighters were handling the blaze at 474 Hampton St., Brendan A. Mikelonis, 20, was taken to the Colleton County Detention Center to be held on an arson charge.
Mikelonis was out on bond at the time of his arrest. City police had previously arrested him on April 21, when he was charged with arson after allegedly setting fire to a motor vehicle in the Bi-Lo parking lot.
He was free on a $25,000 bond.
The initial fire call came into the Walterboro Fire Department Sunday at 4:37 p.m. The resident, Theresa K. Refinetti, called, reporting smoke and flames visible on the third floor of the massive residence. Her call to the emergency dispatch center was quickly followed by two other calls reporting flames and smoke visible on the roof of the wood-frame building.
A city police officer arriving on the scene radioed in more information on the blaze, including the location of the nearest hydrant. She also told Refinetti and Mikelonis to leave the home. Refinetti left after making sure that her animals were safely outside the home and grabbing her purse.
Walterboro Fire Chief Wayne Lake said the first firefighters on the scene hauled a hose and their fire equipment up three flights of stairs to the third-floor’s finished attic.
The top floor had no windows and three small vents on the roof. The lack of ventilation, he explained, caused the heat in the attic to build to oppressive levels and the smoke to become so thick that the firefighters could not see the flames. They used thermal imaging gear to find the flames through the heavy smoke.
Two separate attempts to attack the flames in the attic were made without success, the firefighters battling the fire as debris fell from the ceiling onto their helmets. However, the heat quickly sapped their strength. “The heat is the thing — you would be surprised how much it drains you,” Lake said.
One city firefighter, suffering heat exhaustion, was moved to a waiting ambulance where paramedics gave him an IV to replenish his body’s fluids.
Chris Crosby, the fire’s incident commander, said firefighters had to contend with heat, the thermometer hovering in the mid-90s, as well as the size and age of the home.
The residence, known as the Fripp-Fishburne-Hiott House, was built in 1889. Originally a one-story structure, a second story and large attic were added in the early 1900s.
The home is currently owned Theresa Refinetti and her husband, Dr. Roberto Refinetti. Dr. Refinetti is a physiological psychologist who served as a associate professor and professor with the University of South Carolina until 2013 when he left to become a professor at Boise State University in Boise, Idaho.
The flames ate away a portion of the roof at the rear of the house. Lake said that actually aided the firefighting efforts by providing ventilation, allowing the heat and smoke to pour out the hole in the roof.
Firefighters set up a deluge gun, a piece of firefighting gear that can pour massive amounts of water on the flames, and began sending water into the attic through the hole in the roof.
Early in the fire, Walterboro made a mutual aid call to Colleton County Fire-Rescue for additional personnel.
When the attic flames burned downward into a second-floor closet, a team of Fire-Rescue firefighters took out a second-floor window near the closet and were able to send a steady stream of water into the attic from below.
The flames now under control, firefighters were able to go back into the attic and begin extinguish hot spots. They tried to limit the amount of water used in extinguishing the hot spots to limit its effect on the evidence that arson investigators would be collecting.
Lake said he was extremely pleased with the efforts of the city’s firefighters and the members of Colleton County Fire-Rescue who responded to the mutual aid call.
As night arrived in the 400 block of Hampton Street, members of the Walterboro Fire Department were beginning to assemble their firefighting gear and grabbing swigs of thirst-quenching water. It would be 11:20 p.m. before the department’s equipment was collected and cleaned.
Meanwhile two agents from the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, accompanied by an agent from the federal agency Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, were in the early stages of their investigation into the arson fire. Walterboro Police Chief Wade Marvin said that the police department called on SLED to have its arson investigation unit investigate the fire; however, he did not contact the federal agency. He suspected that the ATF agent was working with SLED.
Sunday afternoon’s fire call was not the first time firefighters had been at the residence last weekend.
They were called to the home Saturday at 11:12 p.m. to extinguish a vehicle fire that was also determined to be suspicious.
Firefighters arriving at the home Saturday night found the front of a car parked in an attached carport on fire.
Lake said while the car sustained heavy damage, quick efforts by the firefighters kept the flames from igniting the carport.
A witness told police that she had heard two people talking, followed by the sound of liquid being splashed.
Mikelonis faces third-degree arson charges in connection with the Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon fires.
He has posted the $45,000 bond set when he appeared before a Colleton County Magistrate on the two arson charges.