The fire at the Hometown Wal-Mart Tuesday morning was started using a popular children's novelty Silly String.
Johnathan L. Maldonado, 20, of 545 Garibaldi Court, Hazleton, admitted to Rush Township Police that he squeezed out some Silly String and used a lighter to set it aflame. He then placed the can and burning "string" on a shelf in the clearance area, which is located in the superstore's west wing.
Within minutes, the blaze grew, igniting other merchandise. Maldonado and his friends quickly left the store, ran to their vehicle and fled north on Route 309 instead of alerting store personnel.
Volunteer firefighters from eight local departments were able to bring the fire under control relatively quickly, despite heavy snow and biting cold temperatures.
Store personnel and dozens of customers were forced out into a winter storm to watch as firefighters drug hoses through the front doors and attacked the blaze from the roof.
The store was closed for 13 hours, re-opening late Tuesday afternoon, although the west wing/clearance area remains closed.
Damage is estimated at more than $25,000.
Rush Township Police were able to access video surveillance footage, spotting four young men who had been in that area just a minute or two before the fire began. Photos of the four men and their vehicle were distributed to law enforcement agencies and local media after state police Fire Marshal John Burns determined the fire to be arson.
Within hours, Rush Police Sgt. Duane Frederick was contacted by Hazleton Police and met with two of the males from the video. Maldonado was identified as the person who set the fire. He was contacted and questioned, eventually admitting to setting the Silly String on fire.
He was arrested and arraigned before Duty District Judge James Ferrier on four felony arson related charges arson placing others in danger of death or bodily injury, arson of an inhabited structure, arson related to reckless endangerment and arson; as well as lesser charges of dangerous burning, risking/causing a catastrophe, failure to prevent a possible catastrophe, criminal mischief and reckless endangerment.
Ferrier set bail at $50,000 straight and Maldonado was lodged in the Schuylkill County Prison in Pottsville.