Investigators Seek Cause of Fire at Massachusetts Church

November 7, 2008

Investigators have not determined whether a fire that destroyed a church under construction for a predominantly African-American congregation in Springfield, Massachusetts started accidentally or was a deliberate act of arson, authorities said Wednesday.

The blaze destroyed the Macedonia Church of God in Christ’s new building, which was slated to open in a few months. Springfield fire officials say three firefighters were slightly hurt and damage was estimated at $2 million.

FBI and federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives investigators have joined state and Springfield officials in their investigation of the fire, which started around 3 a.m. Wednesday.

State Fire Marshal Stephen Coan warned against jumping to conclusions about the fire, saying they are just beginning what is expected to be a lengthy review.

“It would be unwise to guess at the cause, or rush to judgment or have any conclusions that are not based on evidence,” Coan said at a news conference Wednesday across the street from the charred building. “We need time to let the evidence take us where it takes us.”

The contingent of federal and state investigators is part of normal protocol, not an indication that they already have suspicions about the fire, he said. Springfield police say they are standing by to launch a criminal investigation if necessary.

“We take fires in houses of worship very seriously. These fires tear at the fabric of our community,” Coan said.

The church’s pastor, Bishop Bryant Robinson, and some parishioners have said they think the fire was deliberate and may have been a hate crime, but they did not immediately offer information to support that belief.

Robinson said he was celebrating Barack Obama’s victory in the presidential election when he was notified of the blaze at about 3 a.m. Wednesday.

“You can imagine how I felt when I got the call this morning and the voice said ‘The church is on fire, it is burning to the ground, flames are licking to the sky,”‘ Robinson said.

The bishop vowed that congregation would rebuild. “We have a saying: We don’t believe God brought us this far to leave us now.”

Fire officials specifically steered clear of deeming it an arson fire, although Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno put out a public appeal for information from anyone who may have witnessed anything suspicious.

Asked about the fire during a Statehouse news conference on Wednesday, Gov. Deval Patrick said he had been briefed on it, but had been given no reason to believe it was a crime.

Kurt Schwartz, the state’s undersecretary of public safety, said he is meeting with investigators on Patrick’s behalf and monitoring the case.

“I have been assured that all of the necessary resources are here or are on their way, and that everything is being done to determine the cause and origin of this fire, whatever it may be,” he said.

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