Although arson was the cause of a house fire in Apalachicola on Tuesday, August 23 investigators believe it is an isolated incident.
Apalachicola Police Chief Bobby Varnes and Eric Bryant, an investigator for the state’s Bureau of Fire and Arson Investigation (formerly the State Fire Marshall’s office) both said that two other fires in the same area, one on 10th Street and one on Avenue K, have both been ruled accidental. Both fires took place and were investigated over the last year.
Investigators are certain arson was the cause of the latest blaze.
Mark Galbraith, aided by wife Terry, spent the last 10 years preparing to retire to the house at 214 Ninth Street in Apalachicola. In 2006, he purchased the house in need of much repair, and set to work renovating it.
“I had a vision. I could see through some of the ugliness. It had good bones,” he said.
A carpenter by trade, he gutted the structure but repurposed as much of the original material as possible to maintain the feel of the dwelling which was constructed in the early 1900s.
Galbraith said he found a newspaper dated 1916 inside of one wall.
Several times each year, he traveled from his home in New Jersey to spend three or four weeks in Apalachicola working on his project. The roof was replaced, interior walls redone mostly with wood, the house freshly painted, storm shutters installed - Galbraith had even recently installed a new HVAC system.
Working with local contractors, he completed the bedroom, bathroom and laundry and the appliances in the kitchen were in working order. Galbraith planned to install the kitchen cabinets on his next visit.
“It wasn’t an abandoned house. The bed was made,” said Terry Galbraith.
Mark Galbraith was nearly finished with his “obsession and labor of love” when his dreams were dashed.
At 11 p.m. on Sunday, August 21, the Galbraiths received a call from ADT, their alarm service, to inform them that the front door was open. Officer Chet Turner of the Apalachicola Police Department responded and found a window broken on the front door which was ajar. The officer told Galbraith the house appeared in good order and said a guitar standing by the door had not been taken. The officer rearmed the alarm system and locked the door.
On the following Monday afternoon, the Galbraiths were again called by ADT, at around 5:30 p.m. to warn them there was movement inside the house. Mark Galbraith thought it might be a contractor calling for the alarm code so he could repair the door, but when he telephoned him, the contractor told him he was on St. George Island.
A second call from ADT informed the Galbraiths that the front door was open again. Galbraith called the city police officer who spoke with him on Sunday. The officer said he was off work but volunteered to check on the property. Once again everything appeared in good order. He reported the incident to the Apalachicola police dispatcher, covered the broken window in the door with plywood, and again rearmed the alarm and locked the door.
Then on Tuesday morning around 3 a.m. the alarm was triggered again. The Galbraiths received a call from neighbors telling them that the house was on fire.
Apalachicola’s volunteer fire department responded and was able to end the blaze but not before the entire interior of the structure was burned. A picture posted on Facebook shows flames 10 feet tall erupting from the rear of the Galbraith house.
“The volunteer fire department did a great job,” said Galbraith. “But it burned fast.”
Bryant confirmed his office is investigating the fire as arson. He said there was a strong smell of gasoline on the back porch where the fire started, but he could not confirm gasoline was used as an accelerant until he receives verification from the forensics laboratory. The lawn was cut on Monday afternoon which could explain the odor.
After visiting the house, Investigator Bryant posted a sign in the yard asking for information. He said sometime between Tuesday and Sunday that week, the sign was stolen.
Authorities are offering a reward of up to $5000, from the Florida Advisory Committee on Arson Prevention, for information leading to the identification and arrest of the arsonist. “We absolutely have leads,” said Bryant.
He asked that anyone with information contact the hotline at (800) NET-FIRE (638-3473) or contact him directly on his cell phone (850) 413-3903. Informants can also contact Investigator Brett Johnson at the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office
The Galbraiths are waiting to hear from their insurance company but believe the house will be ruled a total loss. “We don’t know if we will have enough money from insurance to rebuild. I would like to but we don’t know,” said Mark Galbraith.
He said he doesn’t believe anything was taken from the house which did not contain a television but had two radios. “There is still change on the table beside the bed,” he said.
Galbraith said he has no enemies and habitually ended his days sitting on the front porch drinking a soft drink and chatting with passersby.
“We are definitely looking at a suspect but we have to get some evidence,” Varnes said. “The fire marshal has taken the lead on the case.”