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Officials determine Roslindale school playground fire was arson

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Officials say someone intentionally set playground equipment on fire behind a Boston school. (Video: Alexandra Lydon)
Officials say someone intentionally set playground equipment on fire behind a Boston school. (Video: Alexandra Lydon)

For first-grader Lussiona Santos, the slides are the best part of the playground at Sumner Elementary School in Roslindale.

But on Tuesday, the 7-year-old got some terrible, hard-to-fathom news — the slides had been destroyed in a fire, which officials said was set intentionally.

"Some people burned our playground," Santos said as she left school with her mother.

"We are all sad," her classmate, Miguel Pena, said as he clutched his mother's hand.

A little before 10 p.m. Monday, firefighters arrived at the Basile Street school to find the playground equipment on fire. Flames shot as high as 20 feet in the air, extending into surrounding trees and causing electrical power lines to throw off sparks.

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"It was pretty scary," said Dianne Libby, a neighbor who lives next door and called 911. "I though the school might go up. . . . I was so scared, I had to leave my backyard."

Eversource, the utility company, quickly sent crews to cut power to the sparking lines, officials said. Once the fire was out, investigators determined it was a deliberate act.

It was the second time in the past few weeks that a fire broke out at the playground. On April 18, firefighters used an extinguisher to put out a small fire on the structure. Steve MacDonald, a Fire Department spokesman, said it is unclear if the two fires are related.

"That's one of the many things the investigators will be looking at," he said.

Preliminary estimates put damages at $10,000. He declined further comment, citing the ongoing investigation.

The playground was installed 15 years ago as part of a citywide effort to spruce up schoolyards. Last year, parents raised money to replace wood chips around the slides with a softer, rubber landing pad, which was damaged in the fire.

Parents whose children attend the school said the fire is distressing.

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"Who would do this?" asked Andrea Lesser-Gonzalez, as she walked with her son, Mateo, a first-grader. "We're devastated."

Lesser-Gonzalez said her daughter, Isa, is "terribly upset." A fourth-grader at Sumner, Isa volunteers to watch younger kids on the playground during recess.

"She loves helping the other kids play on it safely," she said. "Now there is nothing to play on."

Jose Ancini learned about the fire when he dropped off his son and daughter shortly before school started at 9:30 a.m.

"I never expected to see something like this happen here," said Ancini, 35. "I guess it wouldn't be so surprising if it happened at a high school, but at a kids' school? That's terrible."

A chain-link fence was put up around the playground to keep students away. The schoolyard also has a basketball hoop, a four-square court, and a map of the United States painted on the pavement.

Boston Public Schools Superintendent Tommy Chang said he and Mayor Martin Walsh are "committed to replacing the playground equipment as soon as possible so that children can enjoy playing on it again."

In a statement, Chang described the playground as a "popular feature loved by so many students and members of the Roslindale community."

Susan Carroll, who lives across the street, said she saw three teenage boys running away from the school around 9:30 p.m. Monday. But she didn't know about the fire until the next morning.

"I wondered, 'What the heck are they up to?' " said Carroll, 66. "It didn't click with me, until I saw the news. And when they said there was a fire at the school I said, 'Oh, my God,' and I called the police."

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Bill Murphy, 69, said he hoped police "catch whoever did this," noting that the fire could have spread to a home.

David Boyaj, 37, who has a child at the school, said he hopes the community can come together to replace the equipment. "The kids are on it everyday," he said.

The fire behind the Charles Sumner Elementary School in Roslindale destroyed most of the school’s playground.
The fire behind the Charles Sumner Elementary School in Roslindale destroyed most of the school’s playground.(Suzanne Kreiter)

John R. Ellement of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Kathy McCabe can be reached at Katherine.McCabe@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKMcCabe.