Man questioned over ‘arson’ attacks

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Published: Friday 16th January 2015 by The News Editor

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A man is still being questioned by police over a devastating spate of suspected arson attacks which saw a car crash into a council building moments before it burst into flames.

Witnesses reported seeing the burnt-out wreckage of the vehicle in the foyer of South Oxfordshire District Council office, which they suspected had been packed full of gas canisters.

Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service led a massive operation to bring the blazes under control and at its peak 27 crews were tackling three separate blazes which started within 10 minutes of each other shortly after 3am yesterday.

The first blaze was at a thatched house in Roke Marsh, followed by a second at Chadwick Howard Funeral Service in Benson Lane in the village of Crowmarsh Gifford and a third was reported in the same minute at the council offices, also in Benson Lane.

Thames Valley Police said a 47-year-old man, named in reports as farmer Andrew Main, was arrested on suspicion of arson and is in custody.

The series of events may have been triggered by a lengthy planning dispute, according to reports.

Last night gale force winds helped ignite a fire in one of the buildings. Police said gas canisters were found at all three locations.

Superintendent Andy Boyd, of Thames Valley Police, told a press conference yesterday that an 80-year-old woman managed to escape the blaze at the thatched house.

Mr Boyd added that gas canisters were found at the home of the 47-year-old suspect as well as at a second address in Roke during police searches.

Police said in a statement: “At this stage the police investigation is focusing on all three fires being linked and they are believed to be suspicious.

“It is believed that a vehicle collided with the South Oxfordshire District Council building prior to the fire.

“There are cordons in place at all three locations and residents and motorists are asked to avoid these areas.

“Nobody has been reported injured at this time as a result of these fires; however, following these fires the structures of the buildings affected are being examined for safety.”

Images of the thatched house showed a large part of the property destroyed by flames, while footage of the blaze at the council office showed widespread damage and part of the building gutted by fire.

Co-owner of the funeral home Alistair Cox said he believed the business was targeted as a case of “mistaken identity”.

“They probably thought the home was a gatehouse to the council. I’ve got no idea why they set fire to the council building,” he told the Oxford Mail.

His father, funeral director Neil Cox, 73, who lives next door to the building, said he heard a noise at about 3.15am and went out to see a car driving away at speed.

The funeral home confirmed the business was unaffected by the blaze, which damaged only its offices.

Sandra Chadwick, a partner at the funeral home, said: “It looks as if all of our office premises are totally smoke-damaged and all the furniture in our arranging room has gone.

“We have got bodies in the premises but they are all safe.

“They are all contained in the rear of the premises which has been untouched by the fire.

“We would like to reassure our families that their loved ones are safe.

“Thank goodness no-one was hurt. I’m devastated, but I’m so relieved that it wasn’t any worse. We will carry on.”

South Oxfordshire District Council, which shares its office and operations with Vale of White Horse District Council, described the damage as “extensive”, adding that most of its services, including housing and planning, have been affected. Attempts were being made to re-house its 400 staff.

A council spokesman said: “We are putting our business continuity plan into place to make sure the effect on the most important services is kept to a minimum.”

Published: Friday 16th January 2015 by The News Editor

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