Fire in a Church: Part Two

SECOND INSTALLMENT (You can read Fire in a Church part one here)

Adrenaline kept me on my feet for another two hours.

Firefighters were on the scene within minutes of the first 911 call. I hung up with the dispatcher and ran toward San Salvador Avenue, where crews tackled the fire. I scanned the scene, making eye contact with a firefighter and explaining my concern. He led me down the street to the rear of the building, where the suspect found himself trapped in the children’s playground, trying to climb the fence.

I spoke to the San Jose State University police, the first on the scene. They took my statement but asked me to hang around to talk to the San Jose police. The suspect tossed two lighters over the fence into the shrubbery, and a nearby resident caught it on camera. She started recording the fire and saw him throwing the lighters, later recovered by police.

I texted Mike in couple’s shorthand, “Church on fire. I got out ok.”

The fire had already made the news.

I sent the same abbreviated message to our program executive director, then climbed a few steps of a nearby dorm to catch my breath and to document the scene.

Another police officer arrived and said, “come with me.” He wanted me to identify the suspect. I made it clear that the man I saw had been in the building but that I did NOT see him set the fire. A third officer asked more questions and then kicked around the bushes for the tossed lighters. I directed him to a patrol car, where another officer had placed the lighters as evidence. Every moment seemed surreal.

Then I texted Mary.

Mary is the person who introduced me to the Lifted Spirits program several years ago, and we became fast friends. We compliment each other’s strengths and make a good volunteer team. She’s the kind of friend you want by your side in a crisis: calm, supportive, present, and willing to jump in her car and head downtown with a bottle of water.

Yet another interview. Photo credit: Mary McCall

The church property brimmed with firefighters, paramedics (in case a firefighter fell off the roof), police officers, and investigators. Newscasters appeared with cameras and started interviewing the church pastor. People wanting to make a buck approached to offer boarding-up services. As it turns out, the fire department does that for you.

There were no injuries in the fire, and they arrested the suspect. I’m not an expert on mental health, but my layperson’s observation is that he needs help. I’m sad for the church and heartbroken for yet another Lifted Spirits setback. Additionally, I’m disappointed in this country’s broken mental healthcare system. Perhaps this could have all been prevented if he got the care he needed.

The fire went to two alarms, but crews contained the heavy damage to the sanctuary where it started. Our rented portion of the building suffered water and smoke damage, and of course, the power is out on the entire property.

My final interview of the day took place just outside the sanctuary doors. The arson investigator asked if the suspect had said anything to me, and I said yes, but it sounded like gibberish. She nodded, saying she had tried speaking to him as well. She said he would be arrested and charged with arson, but he would also get help. When I asked how long it might be before we would be up and running, she said, “It’s never as fast as you would like.” Of course, I already knew that, but I still hoped for some brighter news. She thanked me as well, saying that only about five percent of arson fires are ever solved.

Another firefighter offered to recover my purse and car keys from the building so I could drive myself home. Unfortunately, he couldn’t locate it, so he escorted me through to find it. Thank goodness for N95 masks. The smoke burned my eyes and caught in my throat.

At last, I was free to go.

to be continued…

20 thoughts on “Fire in a Church: Part Two

  1. Wow, you were really lucky! Look at the damage. Thank heavens! Did it all seem like slow motion? I’ve wondered about that, like in a crisis, does time slow down in your minds eye? Did all the donations require laundering to rid of smoke? It’s been a terrible year so far 😢. Let’s hope this is the last of it 💗💗 Love you xK

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  2. Oh, Alys! Wrapping you in love and so thankful that you are safe, dear friend! As you look back over the heartbreak and devastation you experienced that day, I hope you can focus on the inner strength that carried you through. Experiencing trauma requires a long period of healing as you process all that happened on that terrible, frightening day. Telling your story is important, so I am very grateful that you shared it with us here. Please nurture your tender heart each day as you move forward, Alys. Reach out for support as you begin the long, healing process. You constantly give to others, dear heart. Please take time to wrap yourself in love, too! 💕
    I am SO SORRY that you had to experience this tragedy first hand.
    Sending my love across the miles! ❤️❤️

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  3. Read this with a lump in my throat. So very, very sorry. I surely hope that the man gets the help he needs and that the church will soon be ready for its parishioners and your group. Such good work you do!

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  4. Ah Alys
    Your compassion shines through this story. I am glad to hear your friend Mary was able to come be with you. It is interesting how your short text to Mike reminds us of the basics, a building burnt and you got out….but leaves out the human experience that you have shared with us here….rather like headlines in a news article. Hugs to you. ❤

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  5. I am so sorry. Wonderful that you were able to identify who did this so they will not start more fires which are so destructive. ” Lifted Spirits setback. Additionally, I’m disappointed in this country’s broken mental healthcare system. Perhaps this could have all been prevented if he got the care he needed.”
    Absolutely agree with this.

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  6. There is so much here that I’m a bit whelmed by it all. I can imagine you shaking with emotions that you need time still to sort out. I love all the signs on the church and it’s sad that it’s taken out of commission. Arsonists are very hard to treat, I would think. My last husband worked for the fire dept in Glendale CA with a world class arsonist working as their lead investigator. The husband was suspicious and talked to superiors who were also becoming aware. You are probably very correct in assuming he had serious mental health problems that get passed over since no one can make any money from someone like that. It’s sad all the way around. When we chat, let me know the best way to help. Hugs, M

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  7. Dawn is so right ~ you have given so much to others, this is the time to receive help and care. Please take what is offered my friend. I love the signs on the church too, many good wishes that it an Lifted Spirits will be welcoming back the people in their care very soon. xxx

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  8. I hope that writing about this experience lessens the trauma. So sorry that you encountered him. Thanks for the shout out; I couldn’t imagine being anywhere except by your side when I heard the building was on fire!

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  9. So sad! I hope you will be able to operate again soon, perhaps find a work-around for Lifted Spirits.

    Mental health is a complex issue, not least because the (potential) sufferer has to identify a need and then be willing to ask for help. Here, add in cuts to services and the general lack of medical personnel and it is certainly a recipe for disaster.

    Anyway, how are you feeling now?

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  10. Pingback: Fire in a Church: Conclusion – Gardening Nirvana

    • Thank you. There is so much need in this community. San Jose was once an affordable community, but since the advent of Silicon Valley, it’s become one of the most expensive places to live. Add to that the lack of affordable housing and the shortage of housing in general, and its been on an unsustainable course. I’m glad to do a small part of what’s needed to support these women in need.

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