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Fire officials say blaze at site of controversial Waltham light show was arson

The flames broke out at the Fernald Developmental Center, which used to be a school for children with developmental disabilities, but has since been repurposed for a holiday light show.

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A fire that erupted Wednesday night in the basement of an abandoned Waltham building — which is on the same site as a controversial holiday lights display — was allegedly set intentionally, and investigators are offering up to a $5,000 award for information that leads to an arrest. 

Firefighters responded to heavy flames at the former Walter E. Fernald Developmental Center off 200 Trapelo Road just before midnight Wednesday, authorities said in a statement

The blaze, which left extensive damage to the Fernald Administration Building’s basement, was reported by site security. State Fire Marshal Peter J. Ostroskey said it was caused by “a human act.” 

The center used to be a school in the late 19th century for children with developmental disabilities who were shut away from society. But only a week before the fire, the Waltham Lions Club transformed the now-city-owned vacant property into its drive-thru fundraiser light show with a glittering display of over one million LED lights and animatronic holiday scenes.

Locals have since responded to the decorations with protest as disability advocates from across Massachusetts say the month-long show willerase disability rights and replace them with Christmas lights.” 

Advocates explained how the use of the site was “disturbing and inappropriate, given its history of human rights abuses and experimentation on children.” 

More than 2,000 people have signed a petition calling for the city to move the display to another location. 

“The Fernald is a site of national historic importance. It is a place of memory, of human rights abuses, and a major civil rights movement,” advocates wrote in the petition. “All of that should be told and memorialized. It should not be a site for [a] holiday party that erases that history so people can drive among abandoned buildings. Nor is our history an afterthought. People with disabilities are people, and we will not be overlooked.”

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Disability Law Center Executive Director Marlene Sallo said in a statement that “unsuspecting young boys were given radioactive oatmeal as part of ‘scientific’ experiments, and residents were buried in unmarked graves. This needs to be widely taught and understood, and a disrespectful holiday light show brings no illumination upon that tragic history.”

Firefighters told reporters on scene that the blaze and the light show were not connected. 

One firefighter experienced a minor injury while knocking down the flames, WBZ reported, and was treated on site. 

Authorities urge anyone with information on how the fire started to contact the Arson Hotline at 1-800-682-9229, which is part of the Arson Watch Reward Program, for up to $5,000 in reward for any information that helps solve the case. 

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