ANTIOCH -- It was built as a kids' dream, but after a small fire Monday night, the tot lot at City Park became a nightmare.
The Antioch playground, built by volunteers five years ago as part of a renovation project of the once-dilapidated park, was set ablaze by a suspected arson fire this week.
The Dream Builders playground sat charred Tuesday, some of the specialty features for children melted onto the playground surface.
The scene overwhelmed Beverly Knight, who broke down crying while picking up trash at the park, which is in the city's older section near downtown.
"I'm just devastated, " Knight said. "When I saw what had happened, I screamed. I couldn't believe it. There's just a hopeless feeling and wondering why someone would do this, especially where so many kids play."
Like other children, Amanda Ferguson's daughter had a handprint on the wall from years ago when it was built. Every time they go to City Park, they would seek out her print.
Now, those handprints are gone.
"It's just so sad. It's like a little piece of my daughter's history is gone," Ferguson said.
The fire was reported at 10:40 p.m. Monday; one engine responded to the park on 10th and A streets and had the blaze contained about 15 minutes later, Contra Costa County Fire officials said.
No one was injured.
The fire has not yet been ruled arson, but a fire at an isolated playground late at night is "suspicious by its very nature," said Fire Marshal Lewis Broschard. "It shouldn't have caught on fire."
There is no damage estimate. The cause of the fire is being investigated.
Once-busy City Park had become host to rampant drug use, public drunkenness and transient camps in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The park changed later that decade when city staff razed dilapidated storage and restroom facilities, planted new grass and improved visibility by creating a drive-through parking lot. Police ramped up patrols to prevent the homeless from sleeping there.
The icing on the cake for many families was the new playground designed by schoolchildren and installed by volunteers in April 2008.
"It's very sad news," said Wayne Steffen, the resident who led the project. "Just to see the number of children and families there, it had obviously been a very positive improvement to the area."
"It's just totally appalling how someone could do this. It's like striking at the heart of the city," a fuming Mayor Jim Davis said. "Here, we took a park on the downside and made it beautiful. There was so much good going on there; it's almost like someone is deliberately trying to bring it down again."
Antioch is insured for the damage, and plans to rebuild the structure right away.
Davis says he will put up a $250 reward to help find out who may have started the fire, and hopes others will match it.
"Hopefully, that entices whoever knows what happened to come forward," he said.
Investigators are also probing whether Monday night's fire is related to a series of four arson fires set Thursday night and Friday morning. No one was injured in those fires, but the outside of two homes and a store on Sycamore Drive were damaged in two separate blazes.
As for City Park, Knight and Steffen are among those who hope volunteers can help rebuild the playground back to its original condition. Community group Take Back Antioch has already started raising money on its Facebook page for City Park.
"I know as a community, we will come together," Knight said. "We're not to give up."