Fire destroys new playground

By Abby Morris
Star Staff

   Firefighters and police officers responded to two fires Tuesday night at a playground on the Rolling Hills Estates property of the Elizabethton Housing and Development Agency.
   According to reports, the first fire occurred around 7:30 p.m. at a playground located behind the apartment building at 931 Pine Ridge Circle. "A small amount of the rubber (mulch) material in the play area was on fire," states Elizabethton Police Department Ptl. Jason Shaw in his report.
   Shaw used a portable fire extinguisher to put out the fire, and the Elizabethton Fire Department responded to the scene and wet down the rubber mulch material on the playground. A report on the incident by the Elizabethton Fire Department states that the fire was suspicious in nature.
   Shaw searched the area around the playground but did not locate anyone. There was no damage to the playground in the initial fire.
   Later that night, around 11 p.m., Shaw was dispatched to the playground, again behind the apartment building, on the report of a fire.
   "... (I) found that this time the fire involved the playground equipment. The Fire Department extinguished the fire and more than half of the playground equipment was destroyed," Shaw said.
   Shaw said EHDA Director Kelly Geagley estimated the value of the playground equipment to be approximately $6,000.
   Shaw said he discovered a Winn-Dixie matchbook on the playground after the second fire which wasn't there after the first fire. The matchbook was taken in as evidence.
   During the investigation, EPD Ptl. Mike Commons spoke with residents who live near the playground. They said they saw a group of juveniles near the playground around the time of the second fire. Shaw then located the juveniles who were identified by the witnesses and spoke to them about the incident. "They advised that they had been at (one of the apartments) at the time the second fire was started," Shaw stated, adding that two of the juveniles' parents confirmed their whereabouts at the time the second fire started.
   The fire that destroyed the playground was the third on the EHDA property in two days, according to EFD reports. The first fire occurred Monday evening around 7 p.m. when some straw that covered newly sewn grass seed caught fire.
   "That's three in two days and that's enough," Geagley said, adding that nothing was damaged in the straw fire.
   The playground was one of four new playgrounds on the Rolling Hills Estates property, according to Geagly. "It was part of our capital fund money that we get to make improvements," he said. "It technically hadn't been opened for use yet. The construction company hadn't turned them over to us yet.
   "We've estimated that the fire took about 90 percent of the equipment."
   An investigation into the fires is ongoing, according to Geagley and reports from the Police Department. "We've just been tracking down leads today," Geagley said Wednesday. "People have been calling in and saying 'I saw that person over there' or 'I saw these people near there.' Everyone is saying that it was juveniles; we're just trying to figure out which ones it was."
   Geagley said he doesn't understand the motive behind the fires. "What I want to know is why," he said. "It is very discouraging and disheartening."
   Anyone with information about the fires is asked to contact the Elizabethton Police Department at 542-4141 or the EHDA office at 543-3571.