When a fire broke out at a home on Myrtle Avenue in Halethorpe, members of the English Consul Volunteer Fire Department arrived to beat back the blaze. It proved too strong, destroying the structure and sending two firefighters to the hospital.
Federal authorities now say that one of the volunteers injured in the September 2007 blaze intentionally set it, one in a string of suspicious fires in the area at the time.
Documents filed in U.S. District Court last week lay out the case against Nicholas Hannigan, 27, a deputy chief with the English Consul department who told federal investigators in 2011 that he set the fire by igniting a wheelbarrow full of insulation, prosecutors say.
The alleged disclosure came as Hannigan went through a screening to become a Secret Service employee. Secret Service officials worked with Baltimore County police and, more than two years later, federal prosecutors have charged Hannigan with setting the fire.
The National Volunteer Fire Council estimates that about 100 paid or volunteer firefighters — out of 1.1 million — are arrested for arson-related crimes each year.
Researcher Matthew Hinds-Aldrich said while firefighter arsonists are typically thought to be thrill-seekers, many set fires as training opportunities or to create work to justify resources allocated to the department. It's an emerging area of research — and intervention — for fire services, he said.
A top official with the English Consul department expressed surprise Monday when told by a reporter that a member has been accused of setting the 2007 blaze.
Bradford Thomas, the chairman of English Consul's board, said Hannigan informed the company recently that he was facing federal indictment, and the department placed him on suspension. But Hannigan did not say why he was being charged, Thomas said.
"I guarantee you, if we had any inkling of something like this, they would be turned over to police immediately," he said.
In court filings last week, prosecutors said Hannigan described setting the fire as a rite of passage of sorts for volunteers, saying another member told him he "should have lit a fire by now to be like everyone else."
Asked whether he knew of members intentionally setting fires, Thomas called the claim a "ridiculous accusation."
Hannigan could not be reached for comment, and his attorney, Patrick Kent, declined to comment citing the continuing case. He has filed a motion to have the charge dismissed.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Judson T. Mihok wrote in court papers that prior to Hannigan's 2011 revelation, investigators had noticed a "disturbingly common trend in this area .... connecting the [English Consul Volunteer Fire Department] and suspicious fires," but had been "unable to fix blame" for any of them.
'Through these doors'
At the English Consul firehouse, which is nestled in the middle of a residential block on Michigan Avenue, signs above the door leading to the truck garage read "Through These Doors Pass the World's Best Firemen," and "This Could Be The Night."
Started in 1944, the department has deep roots in the community — a hallway is decorated with old pictures and certificates. It is one of 35 companies that make up the Baltimore County Volunteer Firemen's Association.
Hannigan joined the department about 2006. Three months after the September 2007 blaze, he was part of a team that responded to a fire that claimed the life of another member's grandmother, according to a news report at the time.
He remained active with the department even after allegedly telling federal authorities of his role in setting the Myrtle Avenue fire. He is quoted in a January 2012 news article, commenting on a federal grant to help volunteer firefighters pay for life-saving equipment. Monday, he was listed as a deputy chief on English Consul's web page.
The home at the center of the federal investigation was owned by George Corbett, a 73-year-old truck driver who purchased it with the intention of renovating and renting it in order to supplement his retirement income, prosecutors wrote in court documents.
Between July 2007 and the time of the fire, Corbett financed "extensive" renovations, spending $20,000 on a new kitchen floor and removal of plaster and wallboard. The home was unoccupied at the time of the fire.
Corbett was semi-retired at the time, and the blaze forced him back into full-time work, prosecutors said. Corbett could not be reached for comment Monday.
The cause of the fire was unknown when Hannigan applied for a job with the Secret Service in 2011, requiring a screening exam during which he was asked about involvement in criminal activity, Mihok wrote in court filings.
The interviewing officer reported that Hannigan grew noticeably nervous when asked specifically about arson, and proceeded to explain his role in the Myrtle Avenue fire, according to the records.
Hannigan initially said that he served as a lookout while a friend and fellow volunteer firefighter set the fire, but later said he was the one who set the blaze. Hannigan said he returned to the firehouse and heard a report of the fire over a police scanner, and responded with the rest of the crew.
He suffered heat exhaustion at the scene and had to be hospitalized, while a fellow member, William McCabe, went to the emergency room for dehydration and smoke inhalation after being overcome by a heavy wave of smoke that almost caused him to pass out.
Court records show Hannigan had been involved in an arson investigation before. In 2003, he was charged as a juvenile in connection with a fire at a commercial structure, prosecutors wrote. He also faced charges in 2008 of malicious destruction and throwing an object at a vehicle in Calvert County, a charge that was dismissed.
Hinds-Aldrich, a professor of fire science at Anna Maria College in Massachusetts who has studied firefighter arsonists, said they often begin setting fires after joining the fire service, displaying what he calls an "occupational overzealousness."
One Louisiana firefighter who set fires on purpose said he set 50 to 75 grass fires over a two-year period, and learned that other departments were setting structures on fire. He said they encouraged and pressured him to do the same.
"There can be a lot of subtle cultural pressure to prove yourself, that you know what you're doing on a fire," Hinds-Aldrich said. "Any look at the data shows fires across the country are going down, leaving fewer and fewer opportunities to prove one's self."
Hinds-Aldrich stressed that while the majority of the firefighters charged in arsons are volunteers, more than 70 percent of U.S. firefighters overall also are volunteers.
In many cases, he said, arsonists are turned in to law enforcement by fellow members, though his review of more than 2,000 firefighter arson cases also showed that two or more firefighters conspired to set the fires in more than 50 percent of the cases where someone was arrested. He said the fire services are getting a better handle on training and intervention in such cases.
A condition of Hannigan's pretrial release is that he not have any involvement or contact with fire or rescue services.