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…

Fire in a Church

I found myself alone in a church with an arsonist last month.

The stress of the day sits heavily in my chest, disturbing my sleep and leaving me exhausted and, at times, weepy.

I lead a team of volunteers serving unhoused and vulnerable women in downtown San Jose. We rent space at the back of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church. Our Lifted Spirits program offers clothing and hygiene, a hot lunch, and, most of all, support to women in a non-judgemental environment.

Lifted Spirits Mannequins dressed in donated clothes

As I prepared to leave for the day, just half an hour behind our last volunteer, I heard what turned out to be a distant smoke alarm. I dismissed it at first as it seemed far away, but then I smelled smoke.

Entering the main corridor just a short distance away, I encountered a man I had never seen before. He stood in the hallway enveloped in white smoke, holding something in both hands. He turned to me and said something incoherent. I fled.

The corridor where I encountered the suspect showing smoke and water damage

I returned to our serving area, locked the door, then fumbled to call 911. Unfortunately, my phone wouldn’t work, or more accurately, my fingers couldn’t seem to work the phone. I tried clearing the screen, searched for the 911 number that I knew had to be there, and finally managed to call for help.

As the dispatcher picked up, I saw the man from the hallway exit our building, then walk along the enclosed patio area where we serve our clients.

I blurted out on the phone with the dispatcher: “I’m alone in a church with the man I think set the fire, and I’m scared.”

Knowing he was outside and fearing his return, I fled through the smoky corridor to the front of the church. Small puffs of white smoke emanated from the sanctuary’s roof.

A couple of passersby had stopped and also called 911. As the engines arrived at the scene, I remained on the phone. Then I ran to the street to tell one of the firefighters that I didn’t want the suspected arsonist to get away.

St. Paul’s UMC fire, June 8, 2022

To be continued…