Police Chief Kenneth Bobo said he is confident that at least one arrest will be made soon. Bobo commended Officer Ronnie Phillips for catching the suspects at the scene of the crime before there was any evidence of a fire.
Phillips stopped the individuals Friday afternoon after seeing them trespassing on Main Street, which has been barricaded at both ends by a chain-link fence since shortly after the April 27 tornadoes.
Phillips confirmed their names and correct addresses, warned them not to be back on the property again and released them. Several minutes later, smoke began billowing from the buildings.
Phillips immediately tracked down the two individuals and brought them back to the station for questioning.
“He (Phillips) did his job 110 percent and collected all the information we needed to make this case. Everything we have been able to do is because of the great work he did,” Bobo said.
First responders discovered fires in two downtown buildings after receiving the call at 6:46 p.m. A smaller one in the old library was extinguished quickly while another in a former beauty shop on the other side of the street kept members of five area fire departments busy for nearly eight hours.
Bobo said Phillip Freeman of the Alabama State Fire Marshal’s Office was able to collect crucial evidence from the library while firefighters battled the other blaze and police officers interviewed the persons of interest.
Although the suspects have been released, Bobo said he believes the ongoing investigation will prove their involvement with the fires.
“An arson case is one of the toughest cases to make,” Bobo said. “Usually, there is never any arrest on them. It’s nearly impossible because there is a lot of physical evident you have to have to take it to court and prosecute. So it’s going to take us a couple of days to put all that documentation together.”
Friday’s fire was the second in downtown Cordova in the past eight months.
Fire chief Dean Harbison said the other blaze, which occurred in October on the six month anniversary of the April 27 tornadoes that devastated the city, was determined to be accidental.
Embers from a pile of brush that city officials were burning on land nearby caught the buildings on fire.
That incident postponed the proposed demolition of downtown because FEMA required the city to start over the paperwork necessary to receive government funding for the project.
Harbison, who also serves as disaster relief coordinator in Cordova, said there is a fear that Friday’s fire could delay the process again. However, he hopes it will convince federal officials that the buildings have become a hazard that must be addressed.
“We need to do something before this happens again,” Harbison said.
Bobo said securing the area is a daily struggle.
The fence has been destroyed by vehicles four times since being installed more than a year ago. Officers frequently find trespassers and open doors along Main Street while on patrol.
He added that locks are ineffective on many of the buildings considering that some of them are missing windows and walls.
“Anytime you have dilapidated structures like that, you’re just opening yourself up for trouble and crime,” Bobo said.