An apparent firebombing ignited a pair of early morning blazes Thursday in Uptown New Orleans, incinerating three vehicles and scorching a house in a startling scene that resembled a war zone. Federal law enforcement officials said they were investigating whether Mario Zervigon, a well-known political fundraiser, had been specifically targeted in the attack.
Flames engulfed Zervigon’s vehicles and quickly spread to his home at the corner of Prytania and Constantinople streets. Eight people escaped the home’s three apartments uninjured, but three cats were believed to have perished in the fire, said Katy Patterson, Zervigon’s wife, who made it out safely with Zervigon and the couple’s two young children.
“We were dead asleep,” said Patterson, a teacher at Lusher Charter School, pointing at the charred remnants of the house at 3939 Prytania St., rendered uninhabitable by smoke and fire. “We tried to get out as fast as we could.”
It wasn’t immediately clear how the fires had been set, but authorities ruled out accidental causes. “It’s definitely an arson,” said Agent Kevin Moran, a spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the federal agency handling the investigation.
Neighbors described hearing a series of pops and shattering glass. They said both of Zervigon’s vehicles had been set alight about 2:30 a.m.
“I heard an explosion and I seen the embers going up in the air,” said Matthew Williams, who had gone out to walk his dog in the middle of the night. “It’s pretty crazy. I’m shaken. This is too close to home for this s*** to have happened.”
Burned beyond recognition was Zervigon’s Ford Explorer, which had been parked in the driveway adjacent to the home.
“The people who live upstairs barely got out of the house,” Zervigon said. “I think that whatever idiot did it didn’t realize they were going to catch the house on fire.”
Another vehicle belonging to the family, a Honda Odyssey minivan, parked across from the residence on Constantinople, went up in flames in a separate fire that melted the front of an adjacent Nissan Versa, ruining its engine block.
“It sounded like gunshots or high-frequency construction,” said Melissa Walker, who lives in an apartment complex across from the damaged home. “It definitely sounded crazy.”
As friends and loved ones consoled the displaced residents, ATF agents combed the crime scene in search of clues, witnesses and surveillance footage. Investigators collected samples from the gutted vehicles to send to the ATF laboratory, seeking to determine whether any accelerants were involved.
The motive behind the attack remained unknown, but authorities said they hope to determine whether Zervigon had been targeted because of his political work. “That will take some time to develop through the investigation,” Moran said.
“It is a priority to work this investigation because of the nature of the political environment,” he added in an interview with WWL-TV. “Was it a random act or was he targeted because of his work in the political arena?”
Capt. Edwin Holmes, a spokesman for the New Orleans Fire Department, said authorities received a 911 call at 2:27 a.m. regarding a vehicle fire. Firefighters arrived six minutes later, he said, adding that “the fire had already extended to the rear of the home” and was threatening the adjacent property. More than two dozen members of the Fire Department battled the blaze and had it under control at 3:05 a.m.
“They were really fast,” said Patterson, who recalled her husband waking up and screaming for her and the children to get out of the burning house. They managed to get their dog out but not their two cats, Pre and Minnie, she said. A third cat, belonging to one of the tenants, also died.
“We had to go to Walmart to buy (our children) shoes this morning to go to school,” she said, noting the family was receiving aid from the American Red Cross. “We’re going to be fine. We’re very lucky.”
Zervigon said he had no idea whether he’d been targeted or, if so, why, adding he hadn’t received any threats related to the political campaigns he’s working on. Friends said they were surprised that Zervigon, a soccer coach, would find himself on the receiving end of an incendiary political message.
“All I do is simple, basic fundraising and campaign work,” said Zervigon, who most recently has been working with the campaigns of Forest Wright, who is seeking a seat on the Louisiana Public Service Commission, and Bernadette D’Souza, an Orleans Parish Civil District Court judge who was re-elected in a landslide Tuesday to the family court bench.
“I don’t know if anything’s connected to anything,” Zervigon said. “I’m still trying to wrap my head around it all.”
State Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, described Zervigon as a longtime family friend who’s been “extremely active in the Democratic Party,” working for a variety of campaigns through the years, including Morrell’s. The fact that both of Zervigon’s vehicles were ignited, Morrell said, seemed beyond the realm of coincidence.
“A lot of people are assuming, probably rightfully so, that it’s politically motivated,” Morrell said. “The fact that they set a second car on fire on the street that was his was a red flag, because at that point, it was obviously targeting him personally. If this were just a random accident, it wouldn’t be two cars so far away from each other.”
Roger Villere, chairman of the state Republican Party, noted that both Wright and his opponent, incumbent Public Service Commissioner Eric Skrmetta, are running as Republicans. They will meet in a runoff Dec. 6.
“I can’t imagine it’s a Republican-Democrat thing,” Villere said. “We send our thoughts and prayers out and hope everyone’s OK and we catch the culprits.”
Firebombings, while exceedingly rare, are not unprecedented in New Orleans. Thursday’s incident recalled a series of intentional fires beginning in 1997 that targeted Stuart Smith, a vocal opponent of loud music in the French Quarter. Bar owner George Mellen Jr. pleaded guilty in 1999 to hiring an arsonist to toss Molotov cocktails at Smith’s home and vehicle on several occasions.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.