A few pieces of a concrete slab, piles of charred debris and shingles stuck in trees are all that’s left of a Rossville house that fire officials say was blown up intentionally last week.
Using at least a gallon of gasoline, the arsonist poured the flammable liquid on the kitchen floor or left the gas in bins to slowly allow its vapor to seep out and saturate the house, Walker County Fire Marshal Waymond Westbrook said.
An appliance in the house off Mission Ridge Road likely triggered the Nov. 2 blast that neighbors say could be heard for miles.
The explosion — which officials say was equivalent to that of 14 sticks of dynamite — was ruled an act of arson Thursday after a weeklong investigation, hours of scouring the rubble and crime lab samples that showed gas was the cause, Westbrook said.
Now officials have begun a criminal investigation to find a suspect.
No one has been ruled out, Westbrook said, but the arsonist more than likely had a key to the house or found a window unlocked that could have been closed once the gasoline was poured.
Fire officials said the gas was placed inside the home and couldn’t have been poured around the outside. Authorities also found the deadbolt to the front door was in the locked position, even though the door had been blown off its hinges.
One soil sample taken from under the kitchen showed the gasoline had vaporized by 75 percent, while another sample showed 25 percent, Westbrook said. Those readings mean the gas could have been planted in the house weeks before the explosion, but officials don’t know how much time elapsed before the fumes ignited, he said.
Finding the arsonist is “not going to be easy,” he said.
Eddie Hammontree owns the property at 1441 Mission Ridge Road and had been renting the house to Ricky Bethune for the last 11⁄2 years, Westbrook said.
Bethune told officials he and his teenage son had gone to visit relatives in Michigan more than three weeks ago, Westbrook said. But neighbors said they thought Bethune had moved out because the place had been dark for weeks.
“I had thought they had moved for a long time,” said Robert Mull, who lives two houses down. “I didn’t see anyone going in or out.”
After the blast, neighbors gathered around the debris from the house in shock, Mull said. But now he’s concerned about living in an area where an arsonist could be on the loose.
“It’s kind of scary [thinking] somebody that could do something like that could live around here,” he said.
This is the second incidence of arson in Walker County in four months. In July, officials ruled that a fire at Garretts Chapel Baptist Church was set intentionally.
No suspects have been found in the church fire, and Westbrook said officials haven’t ruled out the possibility that the two fires were related, but the only similarity is that gas was used in both cases.
Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...