Wilkinsburg, PA Johnston School Fire, Dec 1920


Fifteen-Room Building in Wilkinsburg, Outside Pittsburgh, Is Total Loss.


Policeman Gives Chase, but Incendiary Escapes Without Leaving Any Clue to His Identity.

Special to The New York Times.

PITTSBURG, Dec. 26.---Operations of the arson ring which is blamed for the fire losses aggregating more than $4,500,000 in Fayette and Westmoreland Counties were brought to the very door of Pittsburgh early today with the destruction of the Johnston School in Wilkinsburg, a borough adjoining this city on the east, adding $200,000 to the already tremendous toll. The incendiary was seen leaving the building and several shots were fired at him, but he escaped without leaving any clue to his identity.

The fact that this outrage came on the heels of the arrest yesterday of Albert Smith of Fairhope, Fayette County, who is alleged to have confessed to complicity in about fifteen fires in the Brownsville region of Fayette County, increases the perplexity of police, detectives, State troopers, Sheriffs and others who have been working for weeks in an effort to run down the firebugs.

With Pittsburgh itself now in the arson zone, the school authorities announced today that thorough precautions would be taken at once to guard the school buildings of this city.

The Johnston school fire was clearly the work of incendiaries, the building having been fired after floors had been saturated with oil or some similar inflammable substance. The blaze was discovered shortly after 2 o'clock by Patrolman Adam Fornof of the Wilkinsburg police force. As he started for the nearest fire box to turn in an alarm he saw a man running from the school building. He shouted to the man to stop, but no attention was paid to his command and, giving chase, he fired several shots at the fugitive, but none of them stuck the fleeing man, who darted into a dark side street and eluded his pursuer.

Calls on Pittsburgh for Help.

Fornof turned in the alarm and hurried back to the school house. So carefully had the incendiary done his work that when the two fire companies of the borough reached the scene the entire second floor of the building, a modern two-story, fifteen-room structure, was in flames. Captain Samuel Jefferies, realizing that the blaze was beyond control of the borough firemen, telephoned to the Pittsburgh firemen arrived the flames were consuming the last room on the rear of the first floor. The flames were sweeping through the rooms in such a fashion as to indicate that almost every one of them had been soaked with oil. An hour after the flames were discovered nothing remained standing but the outside brick walls.

C. E. Williams, the rear of whose home looks out upon the schoolhouse, said today that he and other members of his family observed the rays of a flashlight in the school building several times before last midnight, but had supposed that the person moving about there was a watchman or other person connected with the school.

Thomas Fowler, janitor of the building, and J. W. Singleton, engineer, who are the only persons who have keys to the building, say they were not in the building at any time last night. Fowler was in it for a short time yesterday morning, and from that time no person had entered it on legitimate business.

Thomas G. Ryan, Chief Inspector of Fire Protection, who went to Brownsville and nearby villages to investigate the fires attributed to Albert Smith, now confined in the Fayette County Jail, Uniontown, declared his belief that Smith was implicated in at least thirty-three fires.

The New York Times, New York, NY 27 Dec 1920