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Greensburg man tells police setting fire was suicide attempt

| Friday, Jan. 18, 2013, 12:02 a.m.

A Greensburg man said he deliberately set his 5th Ward home on fire because he wanted to kill himself, city police said.

Donald L. Stewart, 45, of 354 S. Hamilton Ave., faces a preliminary hearing on Thursday before Greensburg District Judge James Albert.

He was arraigned on Tuesday on charges of arson, causing a catastrophe and reckless endangerment and was jailed in lieu of posting $35,000 bond.

While at UPMC Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh after the Jan. 4 fire, Stewart said he “intentionally set his house on fire because he wanted to be with Jesus,” Detective Sgt. Henry Fontana wrote in a police affidavit.

“He said he lit loose paper on fire with a lighter to start the fire because he wanted to die,” Fontana added.

Stewart was discovered lying on the ground in front of his brick-and-wood home shortly after the fire started about 2 p.m.

He lit the fire in three areas of his residence: the living room, the kitchen and near the front door, police allege.

“He said as the fire progressed he could not take the heat and smoke, so he opened the window and stuck his head out,” Fontana said. “He thought he would go out and sit on the roof, but it was icy and he fell to the ground.”

Burn patterns in the home fit Stewart's explanation of how he started the fire, said Fontana, a city fire investigator.

Stewart was unconscious on the ground when emergency responders arrived. Ambulance personnel revived him using oxygen.

In filing the reckless endangerment charge, Fontana noted Stewart's alleged actions put neighbors and emergency responders in danger.

Flames were shooting out of two windows in a rear corner of the house when they arrived, firefighters said. The doors were locked, and emergency responders had to force them open.

Stewart sent a text message to his brother saying that he loved him, their father and Jesus, police said.

He added, “I have a great desire 2 b at home with the Lord,” police said.

The brother and father immediately drove to the home after receiving the message, police said.

Stewart's father said his son has a history of mental illness but refuses treatment, authorities said. The younger Stewart owns the home, according to the father.

Stewart kept to himself and had his groceries delivered, neighbors said. He had lived in the home with his mother until she died about three years ago, neighbors said.

The house was jammed full of items, making movement inside difficult, Greensburg fire Chief J. Edward Hutchinson and other emergency responders said.

Firefighters battled cold temperatures, ice and water pooling on South Hamilton as they worked to extinguish the fire near the border between Greensburg and Southwest Greensburg.

Bob Stiles is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-6622 or bstiles@tribweb.com.

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