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Norwich Still Looking For Answers, Cause Of Cruiser Fire

Police Chief Doug Robinson is hoping to get some answers about the cause of a fire that destroyed his fleet of cruisers when he meets with a state arson investigator tomorrow.

While Robinson said he originally suspected the fire was due to arson when he got a call around 2:40 a.m. on Thanksgiving, a state police arson investigator then made a preliminary determination that the fire was not suspicious, although he has not announced a final conclusion.

Robinson said yesterday that he’s torn about whether to hope the investigation will blame the fires on arson, or on a mechanical problem in a cruiser.

“It’s good and it’s bad either way,” Robinson said. “I’m hoping I don’t have a fleet of cars that I’m putting my guys in that can spontaneously combust. But I also don’t want people to go around lighting my cars on fire.”

All three cruisers had been turned off and were sitting in the parking lot behind the police department for about two hours before the fire started. Robinson said the state investigator told him the fire might have been mechanical and the heat could have radiated to the neighboring cars, causing them to ignite.

Robinson said he initially thought the fire was arson because two of the cars had an empty parking space between them. However, he said he’ll trust whatever conclusion the arson investigator reaches.

“They are the people that have the training to investigate fires,” Robinson said. “They know what to look for, what not to look for in a fire.”

Town Manager Neil Fulton was one of the first people on the scene Thursday morning. Fulton is a deputy chief for the fire department, but he was the acting fire chief the morning of the fire. When Fulton arrived on the scene, he said the flames were shooting straight up and there was no wind, meaning that the fire had likely spread through radiation.

Fulton said he was surprised to see all three vehicles were on fire, especially one that was 14 feet away, but said he’s trying to keep an open mind.

“I’ve learned through a lot of investigations that the last thing you want to do is jump to conclusions,” Fulton said. “You really want to let the data and the investigation shape your thoughts.”

Multiple calls to the state arson investigator yesterday were not returned.

Several neighbors who witnessed the fire Thursday morning said that they heard explosions coming from the car. The department keeps ammunition in the cars, but Robinson said that the ammunition casing should have melted instead of exploding. He said the neighbors probably heard the tires exploding.

Realizing that the town will need replacement vehicles, Fulton and Robinson put together a bid package for the three cruisers on Friday. While Fulton estimates that the cost to replace all three vehicles will be upward of $100,000, he said the insurance appraiser looked at the cars and expects the cost to the town will only be about $20,000.

The Selectboard will meet tomorrow, and Fulton will ask the board to authorize him to take money out of a capital reserve that is designated for police cruiser replacement.

The reserve currently has $59,000, and Fulton said the department already had plans to replace one of the vehicles this year and another vehicle next year.

Robinson estimated that it could be months before he gets his fleet replaced, but Fulton was more optimistic. Since Norwich’s situation is more dire than most nearby departments, he hopes that the manufacturers will divert vehicles to Norwich that might already be prepared or in the works for other departments.

The department has on loan two cruisers from the Hartford Police Department and Windsor County Sheriff Department. While the department is down one cruiser, Robinson said he is going to try to get by with just the two borrowed vehicles. He said he’s received enough offers from other departments that he could gain another cruiser if needed.

As for the arson investigation, Robinson said he doesn’t have any reason to believe that it’s connected to the graffiti that has been sprayed on Norwich roads and bridges sporadically throughout the last few years.

Most of the graffiti included anti-Semitic statements aimed at the Norwich Police Department.

“You could speculate that it had to do with the DUI that happened last week. Until we know what happened, we don’t want to speculate,” Robinson said.

Sarah Brubeck can be reached at sbrubeck@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.


This article has been amended to correct an earlier error. The following correction ran in the Wednesday, Nov. 28 edition of the Valley News:

Norwich Town Manager Neil Fulton served as acting fire chief on Thursday morning at the fire that destroyed three Norwich police cruisers. Fulton's role was incorrectly described in a story in yesterday's edition.