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Seminole fires have residents on edge

Some Seminole residents have suggested that recent fires that devoured old buildings in downtown Seminole may have been, at least partially, the city's doing. City officials call these accusations ‘absurd.'
by Randy Ellis Published: July 28, 2013

The city of Seminole is going up in flames — one old house and historic building at a time.

“It makes a person wonder, but what can you say?” said fire victim Bill Bowman, commenting on troubling fires that have destroyed at least three historic structures and five old houses in or near downtown Seminole within the past three years.

The historic Grisso Hotel building was gutted by fire April 23, 2011. The old Booker T. Washington School, a relic of the segregation era, burned in October 2010. The school's gymnasium burned in March of this year.

Several house fires followed, including two in March that resulted in arson arrests. Bowman became the latest victim when a home he owned at 319 E Wewoka burned July 13.

“It went up like dry newspaper,” he said, adding firefighters indicated it probably was caused by an electrical problem.

It's long past time for a thorough investigation, say Ralph and Cynthia Arrington, owners of the historic downtown Grisso Hotel building. The hotel was built in 1927 during the oil boom and burned while they were away on an Easter vacation trip to Iowa.

The Arringtons are convinced the Grisso Hotel fire was arson, but no official cause ever has been determined. An initial investigation by the Oklahoma fire marshal's office was admittedly substandard and is now being revisited.

The Arringtons, who had no insurance, said they were living in the hotel and using it to store classic auto parts for their Internet business, as well as to house a half-length bowling alley, guitar collection and about 125 paintings that Ralph Arrington created for sale.

City officials disliked the way the Arringtons were using the property on prime downtown real estate and the slow pace at which they were improving it over a period of years, the Arringtons said.

Ralph Arrington said they learned after the fire that before the blaze the Grisso Hotel and some other properties they own had been placed on a list of properties targeted for possible acquisition and redevelopment by the city through an urban renewal plan that was under development at the time.

Other properties that burned also were within the targeted redevelopment area, sparking the Arringtons to question whether city officials may have had some role in the fires in an effort to pave the way for cheap acquisition.

Seminole City Manager Steve Saxon said the idea is ridiculous.

“I can't put into words how absurd that is,” Saxon said. “The city obviously had nothing to do with that. ... Obviously, it's a tragic loss anytime you lose one of your historic structures.”

Seminole Fire Chief Bryant Baker also called the suggestion absurd.

“The last thing we would want to do is run anyone out of town,” he said.

Many of the Seminole fires have ready explanations, the fire chief said.

The son-in-law of the owner of the old Booker T. Washington School was living in a motor home inside the school, Baker said. He found an old recliner sofa along the side of the road and took it inside the school.

He later panicked when he discovered the recliner sofa was full of red ants, Baker said.

“He then proceeded to douse the chair with gasoline inside the building, which then splashed over on him, caught the chair on fire … caught the motor home on fire and proceeding from there,” Baker said.

The gymnasium fire happened on the day that its owner was released from jail where he had been locked up on complaints related to his failure to maintain the property, Baker said.

The owner deeded the property over to the city that morning and the building burned that afternoon, according to a local news account in The Seminole Producer.

“We're unable to talk to the gentleman at this point due to the fact that he has had a stroke and he is in a nursing home in Oklahoma City,” Baker said. The cause of the fire is officially listed as undetermined.

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by Randy Ellis
Investigative Reporter
For the past 30 years, staff writer Randy Ellis has exposed public corruption and government mismanagement in news articles. Ellis has investigated problems in Oklahoma's higher education institutions and wrote stories that ultimately led to two...
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