Urban legend has it that during the first inning of the 1977 World Series Game 2, the New York Yankees… were losing. But as fans anxiously anticipated a homerun, a line drive down the middle, anything, the focus of the cameras panned over the plates beyond Yankee Stadium where, you guessed it, the Bronx was burning. It turns out sportscaster Howard Cosell never quite uttered those words we know to be so famous, but the meaning behind it — all true. Arson’s grip on New York City in the ‘70s and ‘80s was strong. From the stadium to France, the Bronx meant arson, and arson meant tragedy.

At the time, fires left entire streets in burnt-out ruins and transformed the landscape of the city. With the formation of the Arson Strike Force in 1978 and the influence of steadily rising property values, arson rates have declined from almost 14,000 during 1976 to about 2,000 in 2013.

Though public and political interest in the crime has faded, arson still leaves a profound mark on the New York communities it affects. Meanwhile budgets for the city’s fire marshals have been slashed, leaving behind fewer resources to carry out thorough arson investigations–and lingering questions.

This project takes a close look at arson in New York City, a felony that for years has been reported almost exclusively in splashy tabloid headlines. We examine the inner workings of arsonists’ minds, the human toll of their crime, the often painstaking process of arson investigation, and effect an arson can leave on a community for decades to come.

We are Chasing Fires.

A Victim’s Story

By Antonia Massa

On a summer night in 2004, Brian Young woke up to the sound of a stranger calling up to his third floor Bedford-Stuyvesant apartment. The weather was warm and Young had left the window open, so he could clearly make out what the stranger yelled.

“Your building’s on fire! Get out!”

Young leapt out of bed and banged on his two roommates’ doors. They could smell the smoke filling the hall.

“It’s a funny thing. I’d never really prepared to be in a fire,” Young said. “You have to choose: what is important to me? What am I going to grab?”


A Bureau Stretched Thin

By Briana Duggan

Faced with a bare-bone staff and an increasing workload, New York City’s fire marshals now conduct about a quarter of their investigations over the phone, without ever attending the scene of the fire.

“Theoretically you should go to every fire,” said a fire investigator who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the matter. “But where are you going to get the manpower?”


The Minds Behind the Fire

By Melanie Bencosme

Arsonists are driven to start fires for many reasons. Some do it for financial gain. Some are seeking revenge. Some want to be heroes. And some suffer from psychological or emotional issues.

It’s not easy to spot the signs of an arsonist.

“It’s not like if you go into their apartment and there’s arsonists’ magazines or they’re locked in a bathroom looking at pictures of fire,” said N.G. Berrill, a forensic psychologist focusing on psychopathology and the psychology of criminal behavior for 29 years and has treated more than 30 arsonists. “People hide it pretty well.”


The Science of Arson

By Jenna O’Donnell

With the smell of burned wood and plastic lingering in the air and the damp ashes of someone’s home underfoot, fire investigators enter a scene knowing what they’ll find. After a fire, the patterns on the walls offer clues about how and where the flames traveled. Investigators look at those blackened marks shaped like V’s – to put together the pieces of what happened. For many years, a narrower angle in the V was said to be a sign that the fire had burned hotter and faster than was natural. A slender V meant arson, they’d say, backed up by several well-known texts published prior to 1992.

They were wrong.


The Aftermath of a Fire

By Briana Duggan

When Bishan Etwaroo left his Bronx apartment one morning in March to take his children to school, he closed the door to his apartment without thinking twice, without knowing that he was also closing the door on the life he knew.

A fire two hours later ripped through the family’s third-story apartment. The heat blasted out the windows, charred the furniture, and left all of the family’s belongings in a blackened, soggy mess.

“Everything that I worked for it just disappeared and I didn’t even see it all happen,” Bishan said. “I left house in the morning and I go back four hours and everything was ash.”


The History of Burned New York Boroughs

By Alessandra Malito

When Lieutenant Walter Malone responded to a fire on the first floor of a building in Brooklyn, his orders were to check out the factory above. The fire was so intense, he and a partner had to crawl on the floor to see anything.

What they did find was 40 cans of gasoline attached by a wick.


“I’m crawling and waiting for the fire to come up here and this is all set up to go,” Malone said. “It’s going to blow soon.”

His next orders were to get away, which he did. But luckily, the firefighters below had knocked the fire fast enough that the heat didn’t rise in time to set off an explosion.

The city that has always prided itself on its buildings felt the pang of embarrassment when all of a sudden residents were burning them down. That was New York City in the 1970’s.


A Case Study in Economics and Arson

By Antonia Massa

Working as a firefighter in Bedford-Stuyvesant in 1999, Brooklyn fire marshal Joe Casaliggi began to notice that the types of people– and types of fires– in his neighborhood were changing.

“The demographics of the neighborhood changed, because it’s a quick ride on the train from Manhattan,” said Casaliggi. “People from Manhattan started coming in, and arson started going down.”

The shift isn’t complicated to explain. Arson is a crime intimately connected to economics. Because insurance generally covers fire damage, owners may have an incentive to set fire to their own properties to avoid losses in a recession and to fraudulently collect insurance money. Economists have even proven that arson rates are prone to fluctuate with the business cycle.


About the Project

CUNY Graduate School of Journalism students, in conjunction with non-profit investigative news site City Limits, have delved into the past, present and future of arson in New York City. Arson was once only stories, retold through books and victims. But with hard work and determination we have spread it across a multimedia platform that includes articles, videos, photographs, timelines and documents. In a modern New York City that has moved past the burned buildings, we have decided to put it back on the page and show city residents, history buffs and anyone else how arson numbers may be reportedly lower, but the effects haven’t changed.

20140512_131735_HDR Melanie Bencosme is a modern day storyteller. She is studying international and interactive journalism in New York. Her work has appeared in the International Business Times, NBCLearn, Voices of NY and The Nabe.

Briana Briana Duggan reported for one of the country’s Top Ten NPR-affiliate stations, WFAE of Charlotte, North Carolina, where she was the arts reporter. She covered the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Her work has  ranged from profiles – of a boxer who also recites poetry or a 86-year-old prison music teacher – to an investigative report on the city’s struggling arts funding environment. She is now studying at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Ross Ross Keith is a multimedia journalist with a focus on data-driven projects, web design and interactive graphics. He has written for the Mott Haven Herald and is currently pursuing interests in reporting and technology as a graduate student at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. 

AliAlessandra Malito is a freelance reporter in New York studying business and interactive journalism. She has been writing articles since she was 15 and a sophomore in high school, and has had more than 400 articles published in professional publications, including the Wall Street Journal Metropolis blog,, NYT Lens blog, the Queens Chronicle,, websites and Long Islander newspapers. 

Annie Antonia Massa is a freelance reporter pursuing a master’s degree in business and economic reporting at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She has written and worked for Thomson Reuters, USA Today, Quartz, Narratively, The Poughkeepsie Journal, Chronogram and Voices of New York.

20140512_131837_HDR Jenna O’Donnell‘s work has appeared in the Mott Haven Herald and DNAinfo, where she’s written about parks, the environment and bunnies. She concentrates on Health & Science reporting at CUNY and hopes to to produce weird and interesting stories while interning at the Daily News this summer.

Steve Steven Trader just completed his first year of a master’s program at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in midtown Manhattan, where he focuses on business and feature writing and radio reporting. He is interning at WHYY radio in Philadelphia over the summer. When Steve’s not at school, you’ll likely find him on the rooftop of his Brooklyn apartment, in one of New York’s hundreds of pizza joints, or attending a nude yoga class.