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Fire tears through Hinton

HINTON, W.Va. -- About 50 residents of Hinton were displaced when fire tore through almost a whole city block early Tuesday.

Hinton police arrested Billy Joe Gill, 25, of Hinton on charges of first-degree arson, Chief Derek Snavely said.

Residents living in 10 apartments on Temple Street barely escaped with their lives after fire tore through the old brick row houses about 2 a.m., Snavely said.

The Red Cross will place the residents in a hotel in the Hinton area until they can find other housing, City Manager Cris Meadows said.

Gill also is suspected of setting another home on fire about three blocks from the apartments, he said. That fire occurred about half an hour before the one that ravaged the apartments, Snavely said.

No injuries were reported.

"It's just amazing no one was hurt," Snavely said. 

A cold icy rain fell on the remains of the five buildings that housed the apartment units as city officials and residents met with representatives from the Red Cross.

The buildings sat closely together and were destroyed, Snavely said.

Now, blackened brick shells sit along Temple Street near the center of town for all to see, he said.

The house on 5th Avenue that was the site of the first fire also was mostly destroyed.

Officials of the small town must figure out how to help the displaced residents as well as deal with the burned structures.

"I just don't know what we're going to do yet," the chief said.

"This is just awful," the city manager said.

Meadows and other town officials are working to contact the owners of the apartments, he said. At least one owner has been contacted, and he told Meadows he did not have the buildings insured.

"They'll have to be demolished eventually," Meadows said. "But right now we just have them roped off."

Officers will increase patrols by the burned apartments to make sure people are not trying to enter the dangerous structures, he said. However, the department has only six sworn officers.

"It's going to be difficult," Snavely said. "It's right in the middle of town, and kids are going to be walking by it every day."

The call about the 5th Avenue fire came in about 1:25 a.m., Snavely said. Officers arrived on the scene with Hinton firefighters, and the house was fully involved, he said.

The owner told officers she believed Gill was responsible, he said.

"She said she believed Billy Gill had set fire to her house because he had just been there a few minutes prior and they had argued," Snavely said.

Officers began investigating as firefighters fought the blaze, he said. About 30 minutes into the investigation, officers received the second call.

They arrived at the second fire to find that the brick row houses also were fully involved, Snavely said. Witnesses at the scene said a man had set fire to the structures, he said.

Officers began looking for Gill, with whom they are familiar, Snavely said. He was located in a house about three blocks from the apartment fire about 3 a.m., he said.

Gill was in the home of a person he had been arrested for assaulting in early January, Snavely said.

"From the smell, you could tell that he had an obvious accelerant on his clothing," he said.

Officers were not exactly sure why Gill set fire to the first home, but the verbal altercation could have been the motive.

"And we have no clue why he set fire to the apartments," Snavely said.

Gill did not resist arrest. He is being housed in the Southern Regional Jail.

Gill appeared before Summers County Magistrate Jack Hellems, who set his bond at $200,000 cash or surety.

The fire destroyed not only people's homes, but also representations of the town's history.

The brick homes in the heart of the town of about 2,500 along the banks of the New River were built about 100 years ago by the railroad company that came through the town, Meadows said.

The buildings at one time were considered the "Beverly Hills of Hinton," Snavely said. 

Many of the town's residents either had lived in the buildings themselves or had relatives or friends who did, Meadows said.

Meadows himself remembers playing in and around the buildings when he was a youngster visiting his great-grandparents who lived there.

After the fire, he got a call from his mother telling him that everything was gone except for a tree that used to sit in front of his great-grandparents' home. 

"There are hundreds of families who have memories of the place," he said. "It's just a big loss for the whole community.

"You just can't rebuild something like that."

Meadows said the town has few housing options and the people displaced by the fire may have to move elsewhere.  

"We could lose residents and tax revenue for years to come," he said. 

 Contact writer Paul Fallon at paul.fallon@dailymail.com or 304-348-4817. Follow him at www.twitter.com/PaulBFallon.


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