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Saturday, April 17, 2021

The Eerie Details Behind the East Village Fire — Started by a Mysterious Cellist Who Burned His Way to Fame

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Saleem Al Arabia knew better than to leave his dishes burning while he drove home from work. Yet the retired electrician did just that, and with his last meal, he set off on a seemingly inexplicable arson spree. Mr. Al Arabia targeted ten mostly apartment buildings just over the River Rd. Bridge over the Lexington Avenue Bridge in the East Village. Five of the fires took hours to extinguish, and after them, the streets of the Upper East Side became so quiet, firefighters couldn’t tell what had been burning until they looked up and saw the scorched towers of a few dozen costumed cats flying around Central Park. And they were all in poor shape. “All the buildings were severely damaged,” recalled an FDNY spokesman.

A week later, the FDNY was left with a bleak and eerily familiar job — to dismantle Mr. Al Arabia’s self-created killing machine. They had to cut through pilings and beams, pulling at wood, leaves and debris from his flaming buildings. Like dozens of neighbors along 56th Street in the East Village, a neighborhood that has seen its share of crime — particularly sex crimes — there were also people here who were alive and well when the flames devoured Mr. Al Arabia’s beloved dozen apartments. “I’m still shocked,” said Catherine Wolf, a building resident and a director of Legal Aid’s neighborhood project in the area.

As the investigation of the fire got underway, police received a tip that Mr. Al Arabia had led a double life — he had once worked at a restaurant in midtown, under the name Peter Tony, according to neighbors. Over the course of the investigation, police learned that he had used his own grandfather’s address to rent the apartments. He had mixed his blood with the milk that kept an apartment warm in one building. How Mr. Al Arabia was able to remain unnoticed in the building without anyone noticing that he was burning through expensive appliances and jewelry for a small salary is yet to be discovered.

According to police, the 59-year-old victim is actually a citizen of Yemen who had his residency revoked years ago, had been working as a driver, and had been on the lam from U.S. officials since 2010. He had been under a revoked visa from then until June of this year. Some reports claim that Mr. Al Arabia had been spotted in Queens and Brooklyn.

After initially appealing the eviction proceedings, a witness spotted Mr. Al Arabia inside one of the apartments in the 76 building (pictured above) early on in the day of the fire. So did one of his own employees, who saw Mr. Al Arabia running from one of the apartments to the 9th building, which was already already on fire. In his first witness statement, the police officer who was assigned to the hearing still believed he was there, but then saw the trail of destruction in the way. He corrected his statement a couple hours later.

“I removed [with] my action, one fire from one building.” Still, in a later statement, the officer said “although [there was] no evidence of this person being in my building at the time [of the fire], I do believe he was in another building.” All charges were dropped after he was charged with arson.

Afterwards, the appearance of the twin fires at the 9th and the 1st buildings motivated police to question the labor that might have allowed Mr. Al Arabia to take his torch. They believe, but have yet to say, that his renters — or at least his girlfriend — were aware that he was burning for money. They claimed his girlfriend and his son attempted to change Mr. Al Arabia’s appearance by cutting his beard and dyed his hair bleach blond — even cutting his fingernails.

But it turns out, he wasn’t his old self all along — he was actually hiding his face. It wasn’t until they had to de-register him and remove his name from an apartment building that the authorities caught on to his true identity — he was married to the mother of his newborn son. According to his neighbor, the man who lived in an East Village apartment tower until the early hours of the morning is a man that is apparently devoted to his son, who stands to inherit Mr. Al Arabia’s fortune and place as an heir.

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