POLICE have slammed callous arsonists who set fire to a wheelie bin which led to a gas blaze and endangered the lives of elderly residents.
Around a dozen residents were evacuated from their homes in Maxwell Road, in Hartlepool, after being woken up by police officers and firefighters in the early hours of yesterday morning, as reported by the Hartlepool Mail.
Fire chiefs have now revealed the cause of the blaze was deliberate and police have launched an investigation to try to snare the culprits.
Officers are keen to trace two people who were seen leaving Maxwell Road at around 4.20am yesterday.
They went into Owton Manor Lane and headed towards Wynyard Road.
The fire had burned through a gas pipe and sparked the blaze, leading to the residents having to seek refuge in nearby St Patrick’s Church Hall and later the Laurel Gardens assisted housing complex, in Marlowe Road.
Acting Inspector Gary Cowan, of Hartlepool Police, was first on the scene and quickly rescued the elderly woman from the bungalow, before helping colleagues and firefighters evacuate people from neighbouring homes.
Today Acting Insp Cowan, who was praised by fire chiefs for saving lives, said: “We need someone to come forward with the names of the offenders.
“These were all elderly residents who were asleep and they would never have woken up if I had not been passing.
“The severity of the fire could have resulted in the loss of life.
“It’s imperative that somebody informs the police who was responsible for this callous act.”
Detective Sergeant Stuart Robinson, of Hartlepool CID, said: “The evacuation caused great distress to the vulnerable occupants.
“If it hadn’t been for a passing police officer who spotted the fire and acted quickly then who knows what could have happened.
“The incident could have led to casualties or even fatalities.”
A Cleveland Fire Brigade spokesman said: “A fire had started in a wheelie bin adjacent to the property and had spread, destroying the nearby gas meter on the outside of the property and damaging the gas supply pipe.
“Fortunately no explosion occurred.
“We believe the fire was started deliberately.”
Maxwell Road was closed between its junctions with Moffat Road and Owton Manor Lane from 4.30am yesterday, while two crews from Stranton Fire Station tackled the fire and gas engineers worked to cap the gas supply at the Housing Hartlepool-run bungalow.
By 9am, most of the residents were back in their homes, though the woman who lived in the affected property is thought to be staying with relatives while her fire-damaged bungalow is repaired.
A Housing Hartlepool spokeswoman said: “Workmen will be at the property removing some of the damaged guttering and other fixtures.
“Our policies and procedures worked like clockwork and staff were on the scene immediately after being alerted by police.”
Anyone with information about the incident is urged to call Det Sgt Robinson on (01642) 302110 or Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.