BRIDGEPORT -- Two separate fires that broke out at about the same time Tuesday morning at the long-vacant Remington Arms factory complex are leading officials to suspect arson.
The blaze that burned through the top two floors of a five-story brick building, and a smaller blaze in the complex farther down Barnum Avenue, "would indicate a suspicious origin,'' Deputy Fire Chief Robert Petrucelli said.
A building across the street broke out in flames about two hours after the main blaze, but officials could not immediately say whether it had a third point of origin or was set off by embers blown from the main fire.
A total of 60 Bridgeport firefighters responded to an 11:15 report of black smoke over the city's East Side, coming from the former administration building at the sprawling complex. A bigger fire started on upper floors of a Remington building next to Helen Street.
"I heard an explosion and got scared and ran outside my home," said Mirta Camacho, who has lived nearby on Helen Street since 1996. "I came outside and saw a huge fire and started crying. It was like the big fire here in 2010."
Fire quickly spread to other buildings. But firefighters were ordered to stay out of complex because most of the buildings are unstable from a series of earlier fires and decades of neglect. Petrucelli said wooden plank floors in the old factory buildings are soaked with petroleum products, making them "particularly combustible."
"We expect to be here into the night and possibly into tomorrow,'' Petrucelli said. "The last major fire we had here, we kept units here for a week, making sure it was all out.''
The complex is at Barnum Avenue, Hallet and Helen streets, along the Metro-North Railroad tracks. Train service was not interrupted by the fires Tuesday, and a steady breeze kept thick smoke away from the tracks and nearby Interstate 95. But an acrid smell wafted over the neighborhood.
The bulk of the flames of the main fire were knocked down about 12:30 p.m., fire department spokesman Bill Kaempffer said. Around 1:20 p.m., there was a house fire to battle on Helen St., across the street from the Remington blaze.
Hours afterward, Barnum Avenue remained blocked at Hallet Street.
Mayor Bill Finch, who was at the scene, praised firefighters' efforts. Even though they had been ordered to remain on the Remington building's exterior, "they are still in danger for what is really a worthless building," Finch said.
The Remington complex has been the scene of numerous fires in the past, including many started by people using blowtorches, seeking copper to sell as scrap.
A series of 13 interconnected brick buildings on 76 acres with old-style timber construction, the factory complex has been closed since the 1980s. The plant has no electric or gas supply.
The factory started in 1867 as the Union Metallic Cartridge Company and was later bought in 1915 by Remington Arms, which produced ammunition and later guns for the Russian czarist army. As time went on, the factory churned out bayonets, Colt pistols, Browning machine guns, automatic rifles and bullets for every American war through Vietnam.
Marsay Studivant, 44, said her family has owned a home around the corner on Maple Street for over 60 years.
"This area is the worst it's been in 60 years," she said. "They need to build something there -- a playground or something for the kids to do, or even a shopping center so people can have jobs."
There are squatters at the factory complex, too, Studivant said.
"There are more than 34 people who live in the property," she said. "I see them at 7 a.m., when I leave for work, with their stuff to collect cans, and they say `hi' to us like our neighbors. You have drug dealers, users, prostitutes all in there. They build small fires all the time."
The property is owned by Remgrit Realty Inc., of which developer Sal DiNardo is the major shareholder. The city of Bridgeport has foreclosed on one of Remgrit's parcels for a second railroad station. Since 2011, the tax bill on the complex has plunged to $5.4 million from $7.4 million, due to a 15-year statute of limitations that forced the city to lop off its claim on taxes owed from 1995 to 1997.
DiNardo, who pays more than $1 million in taxes annually on all his other city holdings, has refused to pay on the Remington site. He notes that he only bought the shares in Remgrit after being assured by former Mayor John Fabrizi that a deal could be made to eliminate those taxes.
In 2011, per judicial order, DiNardo handed the Remington parcel at 812 Barnum Ave., bordering the railroad, over to the city.
The city, in turn, forgave taxes on that site and an Arctic Street property, noting that the back taxes on both were lower than the value of 812 Barnum Ave.
Last year, Bridgeport used $2 million in state funds to demolish part of the Remington factory for a second train station. Bridgeport is hoping the station will give an economic boost to the East Side, one of the poorer sections of the city.
Last month, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy visited the site and announced he was putting $2.75 million on the State Bond Commission's agenda for the proposed P.T. Barnum station's design, with an opening projected for 2018.
Malloy said that "for Bridgeport to only have one train station -- our largest city -- is not acceptable."
Fausto Giovanny Pinto contributed to this story.