Two Irvine teens were in custody late Tuesday in a series of quick-hit arsons that gutted a popular UC Irvine hangout and came dangerously close to campus housing, leaving some to wonder whether they were the intended targets of the gasoline-fueled flames.
The 15- and 17-year-old boys were arrested on suspicion of setting six early-morning fires, according to Irvine Police Lt. Sam Allevato, who said the pair stole a canister of gasoline that was used to set the blazes. The teenagers are also suspects in a suspicious grass fire that took place a month ago near the campus, Orange County Fire Capt. Paul Hunter said.
No one was injured in the fires, which all took place within a half-mile area. About 40 people were evacuated from student housing about 6 a.m. Tuesday, but were allowed to return about 30 minutes later, fire officials said.
One fire destroyed the Cyber Cafe, popular among older students with families in part because it was one of the few places that stayed open late and featured computers and other resources. The fire couldn't have come at a worse time--finals week--for many students.
Aaron Katzenstein, a graduate chemistry student, woke about 5:50 a.m. to a "deep rumble" and found flames about 20 feet from his bedroom window. "I didn't see the flames until I got around the corner, and I said, 'Wow!' " he said. "This could have burned my home down. . . . I wonder if that's what they were trying to do."
The teenagers were arrested--one in the morning, one in the afternoon--by a quickly convened task force that comprised campus police, the Orange County Fire Authority, the Irvine Police Department and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
The teens were being held at Orange County Juvenile Hall and are expected to be charged with seven felony counts of arson and one burglary count, police said.
Authorities declined to provide a motive or say what led them to the teens.
The morning's events began shortly before 5 and unfolded quickly, sending firefighters and police scrambling to keep on top of the incoming reports.
The first call to fire and police came at 4:58 a.m. It was a dumpster fire at 25 Exeter, walking distance from the campus. Upon arrival, firefighters also found a nearby Toyota Celica, swallowed by flames, Allevato said.
Cyber Cafe Engulfed in Flames
The investigation into those blazes had just begun when the second spate of fires broke out 47 minutes later. Firefighters arrived at the Cyber Cafe to find it engulfed. Two dumpsters were ablaze about 50 feet away, fire officials said.
Damage to the car was estimated at $9,000. Damage to the structure was estimated at more than $120,000, said campus Fire Marshall Dale Saunders. But the Cyber Cafe was effectively destroyed, officials said.
The fire that gutted the building was apparently started by a separate blaze begun in an outdoor recycling bin, Hunter said.
Throughout the day, students milled about the ruins of the cafe, which had lent a communal feel to the buildings that housed mostly older graduate and undergraduate students.
"Not only is it one of my favorite spots on campus, it was a place lots of us liked using for late-night studying," said Tamara Asada, 27, holding her 20-month-old daughter, Tymeri. "My husband, my son, my little girl and I would spend a lot of time here."
The neighborhood felt empty, sullied by fire, without focus.
Jackie High, an undergraduate psychology/social behavior student, said the incident struck too close to home. "This was my route to the community. Every day I bring my daughter here to have ice cream and a chocolate-chip cookie," High said. "This is where I met people."
Students who live nearby said they never needed to venture beyond the cafe to nurture their social lives. It served as a miniature student union--a place to study, use computers, sip coffee, meet friends. Late hours added to its appeal.
The Cyber Cafe officially closed at 9 p.m., manager Gail Roy said, but the reality was that it stayed open much later, thanks to volunteers.
Many students wondered aloud if they were being targeted by the arsonists.
As her three young children played in a nearby parking lot, student Shelly Riddle, 32, said she was thankful that winds did not drive the flames to the apartments that border the cafe.
"I kept on looking at the flames, and I was amazed that the winds didn't make them budge an inch," Riddle said. "It was like an act of God. People were asleep--so many could have died."
The heat melted part of the front end of a mint-green 1956 Buick Special that was parked roughly 10 feet from the cafe.
Katzenstein, the chemistry student, protected his roommate's car from further damage by moving it moments after he woke up to the fire.
Behind the gutted building, an arrow and "USA" were spray-painted in white on the grass.
Many students commented on it as they arrived to inspect the damage, but authorities said it was unclear whether the graffiti were connected to the fire.
"Who knows what it means or who put it there, but it's strange, isn't it?" Katzenstein said.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Police say a 15-year-old boy and a 17-year-old boy were taken into custody Tuesday on suspicion of setting six early-morning fires--one which burned a popular cafe on the UC Irvine campus.
Reporting by PAUL DUGINSKI