Officials are investigating whether fires at multiple homes in Baltimore featuring Pride Month decorations that sent three people to the hospital early Wednesday morning were deliberate arson attacks on the LGBTQ community.
Crews were called to the fires in the city's northern Abell neighborhood shortly after 4:30 a.m. where firefighters discovered four homes ablaze, Blair Adams, public information officer for the Baltimore City Fire Department, told BuzzFeed News.
All four row houses were occupied, but the residents managed to escape on their own, Adams said.
Two men, aged 57 and 74, and a 30-year-old woman were taken to a local hospital in critical condition to be treated for smoke inhalation. The woman was later released, but the men were said to be in serious condition.
"At this time, the cause is under investigation," Adams said.
Baltimore authorities said at least two separate blazes appeared to have been lit on the same street.
When authorities extinguished the blaze that caused the most damage and injuries, they were alerted that a pride flag across the street had also been set on fire.
That second fire was quickly extinguished and caused no injuries.
According to WJZ, the local CBS affiliate, the first fire was lit at a home that had pride decorations.
Despite this, fire chief Niles R. Ford said in a statement that the motive for the suspected arson was still under investigation.
"This was frightening for the residents in this area, and our entire community," Ford said.
Mayor Brandon Scott was on the scene after the fires and described the incident as "horrific."
"At this point, we cannot confirm that this was a hate crime. However, my agencies will bring every appropriate resource to bear to get to the bottom of this tragic event," Scott said. "Regardless, I continue to stand in solidarity with our LGBTQ+ community.”
Amanda M. Hils, public information officer for the ATF Baltimore Field Division, said agents were assisting the local police and fire departments, as well as the FBI, with the investigations.
"Our ATF Special Agent Certified Fire Investigators routinely assist with complex fire scenes; specialize in identifying origin and cause; and investigate fires that are potentially caused by arson," Hils told BuzzFeed News.
Abell resident Chris Broome, 41, was walking his dog shortly after 8 a.m. when he came across the street full of fires and EMS vehicles.
He told BuzzFeed News that he then heard from nearby onlookers that someone had been walking the street around 4 a.m. setting fire to pride decorations, of which he said there are plenty in the "pretty demonstrably left area" of Abell.
Broome said he was shocked that officials could be investigating a potential hate crime in his neighborhood.
"This is why it's important that people like me support this stuff," said Broome, who identifies as heterosexual. "Because this is violence and this is destruction and these people are indiscriminate in what they destroy."
"It can't be tolerated," Broome added.
There has been an increased spotlight on attacks targeting the LGBTQ community in recent months amid a surge in toxic rhetoric from the far right, which has included comparing the LGBTQ community to people who sexually abuse children.
This past Saturday, Idaho police arrested 31 alleged white nationalists on suspicion of planning to riot at a Pride event in Coeur d'Alene.
On the same day in San Francisco, sheriff's deputies were called to a local library after members of the far-right Proud Boys group stormed a so-called Drag Queen Story Hour event for children and shouted slurs.
In April, a Brooklyn man was arrested on federal charges and accused of an arson attack on an LGBTQ nightclub that injured two people, while a California man was arrested the same month and charged with threatening Merriam-Webster staffers over the dictionary's inclusive definitions of the words "girl" and "woman."