Brian C. Rittmeyer
The Tribune-Review, Greensburg
An Arnold man who just returned to the Arnold Volunteer Fire Company has been charged with arson in connection with four fires over the weekend in New Kensington and Arnold.
Authorities said that in one of the arsons, Andrew J. Bischof, 21, of Arnold set the fire, left the scene and returned as a firefighter.
Bischof was taken into custody Wednesday evening and later charged with 27 felony counts, including aggravated arson, risking a catastrophe, criminal trespassing and criminal mischief.
Chris O’Leath, spokesman for the Arnold fire company, said just Bischof joined Arnold’s remaining fire company just over a week ago.
According to O’Leath, Bischof had been a junior firefighter with the now-defunct Arnold No. 1 company before leaving to serve four years in the U.S. Navy. O’Leath said Bischof joined Arnold No. 2 on Sept. 25.
“His background check was clear. He was honorably discharged from the military. We didn’t see any issue with him. Everything was fine,” O’Leath said. “It’s obviously extremely upsetting for all of us to find out who the suspect is.”
O’Leath said Bischof will be immediately suspended and, if found guilty, discharged.
The first fire was reported just after 11:30 p.m. Friday at a vacant house in the 1200 block of Leishman Avenue in New Kensington. The second was reported about 10:35 a.m. Saturday in the 1500 block of Fourth Avenue in Arnold.
The third and fourth fires, at 1:30 p.m. and 9:45 p.m. Sunday, were set in a two-block section of Leishman Avenue.
All were less than six-tenths of a mile from one another. Three of the buildings were abandoned. A fourth was occupied, but the resident was not home.
State police said during one of the fires, Bischof left the scene of the fire and then responded back with the Arnold Volunteer Fire Company.
During a review of surveillance video, police said Bischof and a black Ford Escape he was driving were determined to be at or near each fire prior to the 911 calls reporting them.
Two firefighters suffered injuries fighting one of the blazes when the rear deck they were standing on collapsed, according to authorities.
The majority of the fourth fire was put out quickly, but firefighters had to spend more than an hour cutting into walls to keep flames from spreading through the house.
New Kensington Fire Chief Ed Saliba Jr. was impressed with the investigators’ work.
“For them to get here that fast — I mean, it’s been four days — I think that’s very diligent work by the Pennsylvania State Police fire marshal’s unit and the New Kensington and Arnold police departments,” Saliba said.
Bischof faces charges in four separate cases. He faces a preliminary hearing Thursday, Oct. 12 before District Judge Frank J. Pallone Jr. in New Kensington court. He was arraigned Wednesday before District Judge Helen Kistler and taken to the Westmoreland County jail. She denied his request for bail.
Saliba said it was “devastating” to learn that the suspect is a firefighter.
“It hurts because we rely on volunteers to perform a job and a duty,” Saliba said. “We try our best to recruit youths, and when something like this happens, it’s a very big black eye. It’s a punch in the face to the service as a whole.”
While the firefighters hurt Sunday night will be able to recover from their injuries, “Innocent people could have been hurt or killed,” Saliba said.
“I’m floored,” O’Leath said. “We had somebody else in mind — who we thought it was.”
Brian C. Rittmeyer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Brian by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .
(c)2023 The Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.)
Visit The Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.) at www.triblive.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.