Fire at Housing Authority deemed 'highly suspicious'

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ST. CROIX - Authorities are investigating a "highly suspicious" fire that occurred early Thursday in the V.I. Housing Authority's Central Office.

The fire damaged files and office equipment, including computers and copiers, said Patrick Moss, V.I. Housing Authority deputy executive director for St. Croix. The structure also had smoke and water damage, he said.

No one was injured in the blaze.

St. Croix Deputy Fire Chief Corey Kent said that when firefighters got to the room in the building where the smoke was the thickest, they discovered a number of file cabinets on fire. The papers in the file cabinets were ablaze, he said.

Firefighters also found a lock broken on one of the building's doors, Kent said.

The first call about the fire at the Housing Authority's Central Office, which is located across the street from the Aureo Diaz housing community, came in about 5:10 a.m. Thursday.

Twelve firefighters from the Christiansted and Grove Place stations responded, Kent said.

A Housing Authority employee met firefighters at the scene and opened the gate and the front door of the building for them, he said.

Firefighters followed the smoke to a room at the back of the building, where the smoke was most dense, Kent said. There, they found the documents in the file cabinets on fire, he said.

It took about 10 minutes for firefighters to get the fire under control and an additional hour and a half to do mop-up, he said.

Firefighters doing a preliminary search of the building found a lock broken on one of the doors, and decided there was a need for a forensic unit from the V.I. Police Department, Kent said.

Police and the arson investigator collected evidence at the scene, and the incidents is under investigation by both agencies, Kent said, noting that it was "highly suspicious" for arson.

Moss said that he was waiting for an insurance adjuster to determine the extent of the damage inside the building. On the outside, the concrete building is intact.

Housing Authority Executive Director Robert Graham said the authority has $10 million of fire insurance for its entire portfolio of 25 developments, with a $150,000 deductible per incident.

The fire was in the authority's leasing department, he said. Graham said he would be on St. Croix today to evaluate the damage.

The Central Office was closed for business on Thursday, with a padlocked front door and a note saying it would be "closed until further notice."

Moss said that starting today, Central Office staff will be working out of offices in various housing communities around the island.

"We will get everybody back to work," he said.

The Central Office staff members who have the most dealings with the public - those who accept applications for public housing and Housing Choice Voucher programs - likely will be relocated temporarily to the Aureo Diaz office, Moss said.

"We're trying to get things sorted out," he said.

- Contact Joy Blackburn at 714-9145 or e-mail

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