Bethlehem apartment fire ignited by man using lighter to ‘clean’ items, police report

A Bethlehem man who said he had a compulsive need to clean items with a cigarette lighter told police he ignited a fire in his South Side apartment, sending residents fleeing to escape the flames.

Joseph Matacavage, 53, of the 100 block of East Third Street, is charged with arson that risks death or serious injury, arson of an occupied structure, reckless burning, causing a catastrophe, reckless endangerment and criminal mischief. He was arraigned before District Judge Roy Manwaring and sent to Northampton County Jail under $100,000 bail.

According to court records:

Police and fire crews were called at 3:20 p.m. Saturday to an apartment in the 100 block of East Third Street for reports of a fire. Bethlehem police, among the first on scene, found Matacavage standing in the common area of the main entrance to the building.

“What started the fire?” an officer asked Matacavage.

“Me,” Matacavage said.

Bethlehem police were told then that there could be three people still trapped inside in the building’s third floor apartment. An officer went to the rear of the building and climbed to the third floor. Through heavy smoke, he was able find and escort a woman and her three children, ages 7, 6, and 3, to safety.

Bethlehem Fire Marshal Craig Baer determined the fire started in the living room of Matacavage’s second-floor apartment. The fire moved to the bathroom and then spread to the rest of the apartment and into the third-floor unit.

Matacavage was taken to Lehigh Valley Hospital for burn injuries and interviewed by police.

He explained that he suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder and had the need to clean items inside his home. Sometimes, he said, he felt compelled to use a cigarette lighter to “clean” items. He said he’s been using fire to clean items for about 10 years and had a close call in 2016 when a fire nearly got out of control but he was able to extinguish it, though he suffered burns in the process.

Matacavage was using a lighter on a six-pack of water bottles wrapped in plastic when the heat caused the plastic to ignite and begin to melt to the floor. The melted plastic fell onto discarded papers and caught fire.

As the flames grew, Matacavage said he used his bare feet to try and stomp on the flames. When that didn’t work, he attempted to carry some of the burning debris to the bathroom to place in the toilet and tub, but this only caused more paper and plastic to catch fire as it was carried across the floor.

He said he continued to try to extinguish the fire for about 10 minutes before calling for help. Finally, he said, he called 911 and shouted “Fire!” three times into the hallway of the apartment building. He wasn’t sure whether anyone heard him.

Matacavage told police he knew the behavior was dangerous but said he “could not help himself.”

Morning Call reporter Sarah M. Wojcik can be reached at 610-778-2283 or [email protected]

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