MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Revelers torched couches, mattresses and the contents of trash bins early Monday, starting 22 fires near the campus of West Virginia University and in downtown Morgantown as thousands gathered to celebrate the death of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
Capt. Ken Tennant said Morgantown Fire Department investigators are now studying photographs and video, and are working with WVU and public safety officials to identify suspects who could be charged with arson.
WVU said it was cooperating, and any students who are identified will be disciplined through the school's judicial process. They could also face fines and criminal charges.
"For the most part, participants were jubilant, nondestructive and respectful of authorities," said WVU spokeswoman Becky Lofstead. "But it's clear that a small minority were not."
Police Lt. Mike Lantz said other than the fires, the crowds were "very well behaved." There were no arrests and no injuries despite the presence of nearly 1,000 people on High Street downtown and another 1,000 on Grant Avenue in the Sunnyside section, he said.
"They were not confrontational in any way at all toward the officers," Lantz said. "In fact, our officers said the crowds moved where they were asked to move."
On High Street, the gathering became an impromptu parade and there was a spontaneous singing of the national anthem. Officers who were ending their shifts at 11 p.m. were recalled to duty, and Lantz said they were able to control the situation.
"They were just loud, boisterous, but behaved," he said.
Tennant said only 14 firefighters were on duty Sunday night and early Monday when the celebrations began, and after the fourth alarm, the department called in 10 off-duty officers to help.
"We were not prepared for this," Tennant said. "I would never have thought something like this would happen."
But WVU students have a long history of setting fires to celebrate sports victories or other events.
Over the weekend, Tennant said, four people were charged with malicious burning as students celebrated the end of the school year. Five trash bin blazes and one street fire were intentionally set Friday night, he said, and three street fires were set Saturday night.
Finals week is now under way.
There was no major property damage in the latest round of fires, but things could have gotten out of control quickly, Tennant said. Abandoned vehicles clogged the streets along with the fires and the crowds, making it difficult for firefighters to respond.
People were also in danger from the unknown contents of commercial trash bins, he said.
"You develop a mob mentality. Everybody's happy that bin Laden's dead, and we are, too," Tennant said. "But they don't realize in the spur of the moment the dangers in these fires."
WVU's student newspaper, The Daily Athenaeum, reported the shouts from the crowds were both patriotic and profane.
"I remember the exact feeling from when September 11th happened," senior Tyler Steele told the paper. "I remember how scared I was. I was terrified of what happened."
Marine Cpl. Kevin Lay, now a WVU sophomore, said the attacks were the reason he joined the Marines and served two tours in Iraq.
"It's closing a chapter in my life," Lay told the Athenaeum.Comment on this story
West Virginia's congressional delegation quickly issued statements saluting the U.S. military for taking out bin Laden but warned that the fight with al-Qaida continues.
"The head of snake may be cut off, but we must remain vigilant against al-Qaida operatives and those who challenge freedom," warned Democratic U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall.
Republic Rep. David McKinley sounded a similar alarm.
"We must caution ourselves that some who wish to do us harm are emboldened, already making a martyr out of this monster," he said. "We should be under no delusions that bin Laden's death spells the end of al-Qaida; it surely does not."