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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, June 11, 2009

Molotov cocktail leaves Hilltown family homeless

By Zach Simeone

KNOX — A year after he was talked down from a cliff’s edge at Thacher Park, Christopher David burned down his family’s home on Suto Road in Knox yesterday, police say.

Fire departments from Knox, Berne, and Altamont were on the scene, along with the Albany County Fire Coordinator, and the Albany County Sheriff’s Department.

By the time they had quelled the inferno, the old blue farmhouse was completely destroyed. Nearly the entire backside of the house had burned away, and the roof had caved in. The smoke was visible from Route 157.

As a result, David has been charged with first-degree arson.

“At approximately 2:30 p.m. we received a 911 call from the family, indicating that the son, Christopher David, 24 years old, was going to light the house on fire,” Chief Deputy Craig Apple of the sheriff’s department told The Enterprise at the scene. “He was explaining a makeshift incendiary device, that he was describing more as a bomb.”

Apple said later that David had assembled a Molotov cocktail — a simple explosive involving a bottle containing gasoline, with a piece of string acting as a wick. In its most common use, the wick is lit, and the bottle is thrown, causing the glass to break, and the flame to make contact with the fuel contained inside. “That’s what moved the fire along so quickly,” said Apple.

During the 911 call, the eight family members inside were told to evacuate the house; none were injured. Soon after, David called his mother’s cell phone, and said he was going to burn the house down, Apple said.

Deputies then entered the house, and had to use a taser gun to “get him under control and get him out of the house,” said Apple. One deputy was bitten by a dog upon entering the home, he said. “The house was fully engulfed in flames at that point.”

Niagara Mohawk arrived on the scene soon after to cut power to the house. In some cases, a fire will melt away the protective outer layer on electrical wires in the burning building, risking electrocution or secondary fires, so disconnecting power is a common precautionary measure, a firefighter said.

Bright orange bursts could be seen through most windows in the house, and smoke billowed from nearly every crack. As there were no hydrants nearby, firefighters were forced to draw water from multiple sources, including Thompson’s Lake, and the pond adjacent to the home. Water was constantly being trucked in, and the street was clogged with dozens of response vehicles, including fire engines, paramedics, ambulances, and police cars.

The intensity of the fire, Apple said, could be attributed in part to a number of accelerants present in the house, including gunpowder, bullets, gasoline, and acetylene, a gaseous hydrocarbon used in welding.

One fear among authorities on the scene, Apple said, was the leaking of Freon, a chemical used in air-conditioning and refrigeration. When burned, Freon becomes a hazardous gas called phosgene, which was used as a chemical weapon during World War I.

Also on the scene yesterday was Darron Leddick, an off-duty firefighter from McKownville, who was impressed with how effectively the different departments coordinated, he said.

“The one issue I would make note of is the job they did with the lack of water they had,” Leddick said. “They don’t have a set water system; all they do is take water out of the lakes and ponds and bring it back to where they need to go.”

The firefighters were working from outside the house, he said, because of how fiercely widespread and hot the fire was.

“When you’re on the outside, you’re switching to a defensive operation,” he said. “And that was what you call a fully involved structure, when basically all contents of the house were burning. There’s not much in the house that you’re going to save at that point.”

The process of putting a fire out, Leddick said, is like “one giant game of chess” — firefighters must make their moves in response to how the fire spreads. All around the house, members of the different departments could be seen consulting with their respective chiefs, who can be spotted by their unique white helmets.

Elsewhere, small groups of firefighters could be seen sitting on their two-and-a-half-inch diameter hoses, which are looped underneath them, as the large amounts of water being pumped can make them cumbersome to maneuver. Some call this tactic “babysitting,” Leddick said.

The setting of this fire was not David’s first destructive act, according to police. Last June, he came close to killing himself by leaping off a cliff at Thacher Park, said Apple.

“It took us four or five hours to talk him down,” Apple said. “I believe the issue was that he had gone off his medication.”

As of Wednesday night, David was being held at the sheriff’s station. He will likely undergo a psychiatric evaluation, Apple said.

“It’s a real shame,” said Apple. “Eight people are without a home now.”

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