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…