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After Arson, Northampton Residents Examine Community Safety03:47
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The remains of a house fire on 17 Fair St. as seen on Sunday. (Jessica Hill/AP)
The remains of a house fire on 17 Fair St. as seen on Sunday. (Jessica Hill/AP)

Residents of Northampton are banding together after a weekend spate of arson fires left two men dead and several people homeless. A special meeting for residents of the neighborhood where most of the fires occurred has been scheduled for Tuesday evening and police continue their investigation into the source of the fires.

Julie Robbins and Joel Nisson consider themselves lucky. All they lost was their Subaru stationwagon, which was already ablaze when a firefighter pounded on their door at 2:30 Sunday morning. They got out safely and their house was left unharmed, but the event has unsettled them.

"I think the most shocking thing about this is the feeling of having being invaded — unbeknownst to us — while we were asleep," Nissen said. "And you think of your home as your safety refuge, and it's unthinkable in a way that that's going to be violated yet we know it happens to other people all the time."

Robbins and Nisson moved to this close-knit college town from New York City, where they lived through the Sept. 11 attacks. Robbins said this weekend's spate of at least 11 fires, including one fatal, has brought back the emotions from eight years ago.

"It's like being back in New York after the terrorism attack. Everybody's talking. Everybody's mingling. There's camaraderie. There's: 'How do we take action?'" Robbins said.

And like other victims of the fires, Robbins and Nisson have been getting calls and e-mails from friends and strangers alike, offering donations of food and more.

"And I just received something," Robbins said, unfolding a letter, "by somebody from West Springfield, from a dealership wrote, 'I'll give you any car we have at our cost, no markup, This isn't a cheesy, tactless sales pitch. I lived in Northampton for 23 years and I'll do anything I can to help.'"

Much of the support has been on-line. One resident started a facebook page called "Friends of the Northampton Arson Victims," which has quickly become a central community forum. It has already attracted more than 2,000 members. Many residents are sharing ideas and ways to stay and feel safe.

Megan Zinn lives with her husband and two children about 100 yards from three of the fires. On advice from the police department, she took down all outdoor decorations that could be flamable, and left her proch lights on after dark.

"We were calm by last night, but my husband still slept downstairs, had the dog downstairs, just so he could hear anything — if anything happened, if anybody was trying to get onto the porch or into the car or anything like that," she said. "I made sure we had our boots and coats handy in case something happened in the middle of the night."

The district attorney's office has not released many details of the investigation, which has been frustrating to some residents. Zinn said she understands that the authorities have to guard information in order to catch the culprit or culprits, but she's not happy with the uncertainty.

"It feels like it's in a movie and you're waiting for them to come to solve it, but knowing full well that they may not, or that may be a while," she said. "And not having that feeling of comfort that they're going to figure this out, because they may not."

Residents said they appreciate the heavy police presence during the immediate aftermath of the fires, but they wonder what will happen when the patrols thin out.

Isaiah Feldman Schwartz, a 13-year-old friend of one boy whose house was burned, said he's trying hard to just relax.

"Whether you think about it or not, doesn't affect whether or not it's going to happen," he said. "I think it's better to just not. Imagine that we're in a relatively safe community and this happened once and worrying about it isn't going to make anything any better, I think. Just being supportive."

Several Northampton neighborhoods are in the process of setting up neighborhood watches.

This program aired on December 29, 2009.

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