Arson alleged in city blaze

JOHNSTOWN – Careless use of smoking materials by an alleged trespasser likely caused Tuesday’s fire that damaged the abandoned former Johnstown Millworks building on Bridge Street, city police and fire officials said today.

Police on Wednesday said Douglas M. Eckler, 19, of 45 Yost St., was arrested at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday in connection with the fire. He was charged with one felony count of fourth-degree arson and one misdemeanor count of trespassing.

Authorities said the fire at 7:03 a.m. Tuesday destroyed part of the former Johnstown Millworks building at 1 Bridge St. The fire destroyed a small storage room for sawdust and wood chips toward the back of the building. No one was injured.

A news release from police stated Eckler was charged as the result of city firefighters and police being dispatched to the structure fire. A joint investigation between the fire and police departments led to Eckler’s arrest, the release said.

Police Sgt. Jamie Allen said today the suspect “stated he accidentally started the fire after being in the building to get warm.”

Allen said Eckler, who was allegedly trespassing, told police he “flicked” a lit cigarette to the ground inside the building, which officials said probably started the fire.

Allen said Eckler was issued appearance tickets for Dec. 3 in City Court.

City Fire Chief Bruce Heberer said no accelerants were found at the scene and fire investigators are appearing to corroborate Eckler’s story.

“The area of the origin of the fire is actually where his confession said he was having a cigarette,” he said.

Heberer said the lit cigarette most likely ignited old sawdust and wood chips inside the structure.

He said the law allows for Eckler to be charged with arson whether he started the fire intentionally or accidentally.

The fire chief also noted the building was “definitely secure,” which is why police charged Eckler with trespassing.

Heberer said the owner of the building is Jerry Kuziw of Towaco, N.J., who has insurance for the building.

“The investigation is closed with the arrest,” Heberer said.

The building, Heberer said Tuesday, previously was used for making cabinets.

Cory French, caretaker of the building, said Tuesday the building was not being used.

Kuziw is a Manhattan developer and the same owner of several buildings on West State Street destroyed in an April 24, 2008. Those buildings were not insured.

The massive blaze not only consumed the Gordon Finishing building at 19 W. State St., but also the Arrow Leather Finishing building, the former Lee Dyeing building at 11-13 W. State St. and another old leather mill at 27 W. State St. The fire shot debris and embers across several blocks. The embers ignited about 15 other minor fires throughout the area, mostly on roof shingles.

Land Escapes was doing salvage work for Hawk LLC at the former Gordon Finishing building. That morning, worker Nathan Clark was cutting metal on the second floor of the Gordon Finishing building and officials said he accidentally sparked the fire.

Kuziw couldn’t be reached this morning for comment.

Michael Anich covers Johnstown and Fulton County news. He can be reached at