Cause of Massive Fire Revealed, Man Charged

Police leading McKavanagh into District Court moments after his ex-wife asasulted a reporter.  Credit: Tom Sofield/

Police leading McKavanagh into District Court moments after his ex-wife asasulted a reporter.
Credit: Tom Sofield/

One can assume Hugh McKavanagh did not expect his mentally challenged son to, according to investigators findings, set Racquet Club B building ablaze on a sticky Friday evening in July.

While an investigation has concluded the fire was an accident, Middletown Township police say McKavanagh’s decision to leave his 16-year-old son, who functions with the mind of a child between the ages of four and six, was a poor one. One that likely could have prevented the massive fire, which left more than 100 people homeless.

McKavanagh, 59, was arrested and arraigned Monday afternoon on charges of misdemeanor child endangerment before Penndel District Judge Daniel Baranoski at around 3:30 p.m. Monday. He was able to post 10 percent of $15,000 bail. The judge also placed a no contact with unsupervised minors restriction on the man.

At his arraignment, McKavanagh said he was strapped for cash and living with the 16-year-old boy at the Comfort Inn on Route 13 in Bristol Township.  Detective Strothers,  said that through surveillance he believed McKavanagh was staying with Norton.

McKavanagh ‘s ex-wife, Theresa Norton, and one of her sons caused a commotion outside the Penndel courtroom prior to McKavanagh’s arraignment. Norton took several swipes at a reporter and his camera as a Middletown patrolman lead the 59-year-old into court. Her son then got in the reporter’s face and threatened him with violence. Penndel police responded to assist a Middletown detective and officer. The reporter decided against pressing charges, but did file an incident report for the record.

The door to the apartment where the fire started. Credit: Tom Sofield/

The door to the apartment where the fire started.
Credit: Tom Sofield/

According to an affidavit of probable cause, McKavanagh left his mentally challenged son alone in apartment B-20 and was drinking beer and chatting at a nearby friend’s unit in the large apartment complex. It is noted in court papers that McKavanagh’s apartment was visible from the friend’s apartment, which was in C building.

According to police, McKavanagh and friends decided they would go to Parx Casino in Bensalem. The 59-year-old wanted to change clothes and walked back toward his apartment. He noticed, according to statements given to police, there was a fire and he rushed to rescue his son, but he was unable to enter because of the smoke and flames, according to court papers.

The 16-year-old boy, with the help of McKavanagh’s friends jumped from the second floor balcony, police said. He was taken to St. Mary Medical Center and treated for an arm injury and smoke inhalation, while his father suffered burns to his feet and was transported for treatment.

A firefighter works to douse flames in the area where the fire started.  Credit: Tom Sofield/

A firefighter works to douse flames in the area where the fire started.
Credit: Tom Sofield/

It was determined by the fire marshal’s office that the 16-year-old boy – whose name is withholding because he is a minor – caused the fire when he emptied an ashtray into the kitchen trash in an effort to help clean up, court papers say. The teen reportedly said his father had been smoking inside the apartment.

A medic who arrived to treat McKavanagh said he was drinking alcohol outside the C building as the massive fire raged on, according to court documents.

When Middletown Township Detective David Strother spoke with McKavanagh at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia several hours after the fire started, he wrote in court filings he could still smell the alcohol on McKavanagh ‘s breath, despite the fact that he had an oxygen mask on.

Police said that McKavanagh admitted to hospital staff that he consumes an average of a half case of beer a day.

Even at his preliminary hearing, McKavanagh admitted to drinking in the hours prior to police arresting him Monday afternoon. The judge asked if the retired McKavanagh was drunk after the smell of alcohol wafted through the courtroom.

Credit: Tom Sofield/

Credit: Tom Sofield/

Statements made to medical staffers indicated McKavanagh left his son by himself at the time of the fire, police said.

Strother said in court Monday that county children and youth officials were working to see what will happen with the 16-year-old boy, who McKavanagh and his ex-wife have joint custody of.

McKavanagh has several prior arrest dating back to the 1970s. It was announced in court that one prior was for assault and the other for arson. He also has a 2008 DUI arrest.

McKavanagh’s arrest on Monday comes after months of investigation by police and fire officials. Initial charges for the fire were filed against McKavanagh in August and quickly withdrawn over concerns by the district attorney’s office.

The fire left hundreds homeless, made national headlines, caused numerous hardships and left some of the over 200 firefighters who responded with minor injuries.

In the days and weeks following, people from around the region came out in support of the fire victims and donated so many items that volunteers were able to fill part of Walter Miller Elementary School in Levittown. They also came together to honor the group of young boys, lead by Ilijah Rodriguez, who alerted neighbors the B building was ablaze on July 26 at around 9 p.m.

In August, Home Properties, the company the owns the Racquet Club complex, tried to evict McKavanagh’s ex-wife from her apartment in C building. The landlord said McKavanagh and the 16-year-old moved into Norton’s two-bedroom apartment after the fire and were now exceeding the unit’s contractually agreed upon amount of occupants.

A woman watch as firefighters work to fight the blaze in July. Credit: Tom Sofield/

A woman watch as firefighters work to fight the blaze in July.
Credit: Tom Sofield/

Norton tearfully recounted how McKavanagh stayed at her C building unit in the week after he was released from the hospital. She then testified that he had moved out after and was currently living with friends and in motels, but still came over to her unit from time-to-time. She added that the 16-year-old boy was using her address for his school bus, which takes him to a school in Northeast Philadelphia.

Home Properties had employees, who watched on the family at the complex, gather evidence that McKavanagh was living in the apartment.

Baranoski, the judge who oversaw the landlord tenant complaint, ruled in favor of Norton and said there was not enough proof that McKavanagh was living in the C building.

Since the fire, several residents have heckled McKavanagh and Norton said some called him a “drunk.” Police were called for at least one of the disputes.

According to court papers, testimony and apartment complex residents, McKavanagh, Norton and their children moved to Middletown from New Jersey in an effort to find a more suitable school for the 16-year-old, as he requires specialized classes.

The massive fire destroyed 43 first- and second-floor apartment units in the B building. As of last week, crews appeared to be still working to clear the burnt-out apartment building.

McKavanagh is set to have a preliminary hearing before Baranoski in the coming weeks.

Editor’s Note: All individuals arrested or charged with a crime are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Story was compiled using information from police and public court documents.


Tom Sofield has covered news in Bucks County for five years for both newspaper and online publications.In 2012, Tom was honored at the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association Foundation's Keystone Press Awards for his coverage of President Obama's visit to Falls Township in 2011.When he's not covering news in the area, Tom enjoys checking out the newest restaurants and bars, exploring forgotten places of industry in the area, going to local parks and spending time with his friends and family.If there's one thing you should know about Tom, he is a local news junkie through and through.Email: Phone: 215-431-1001