Black Church in Springfield Burns
Fire began hours after vote, prompting fears it was arson
A predominantly black church under construction in Springfield was destroyed by fire early yesterday, just hours after Barack Obama’s landmark victory, triggering concerns that the building was purposely set ablaze in a possible hate crime.
Church officials pledged to rebuild, but the concerns that their building was targeted dampened a mood that had been so uplifted in the night of Obama’s historic win to become the nation’s first black president-elect.
“This was a special time in our nation’s history, but I also know not everybody was happy and celebrating,” said Bishop Bryant J. Robinson Jr., head of the church. “After 71 years of being an African-American, you know these things happen.”
Located on King Street, the church was moving to the site at 215 Tinkham Road, where the fire occurred.
Fire officials were quick to emphasize that the blaze remains under investigation, but the unknown nature of the fire triggered an inquiry that will involve local and state investigators and federal agents with the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. It is standard procedure for the ATF and local and state officials to investigate after a place of worship burns, and the FBI agreed to assist because of the unknown cause of the blaze.
“I want to caution people not to jump to conclusions and to allow the investigation to take its time and allow the investigation to follow the evidence trail,” said state Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan.
He acknowledged that the congregation could be wary considering the fire’s timing, but said investigators have not fully examined what happened. Coan said investigators will inspect the building today using accelerant-sniffing dogs, and detectives will also interview people in the neighborhood. He said the investigation could be a lengthy process.
“Clearly, a fire that occurs in a house of worship, with the close proximity to national events yesterday, is something in the mind of investigators, but it’s most important we not reach any conclusions based on the circumstances of those events, but rather allow the evidence to lead us to the conclusion,” Coan said.
Responding firefighters found the steel and wood-framed structure fully engulfed.
Firefighters worked to prevent the blaze from spreading to houses, said Dennis G. Leger, a Fire Department spokesman. He said two garden sheds had minor heat damage.
Three firefighters suffered minor injuries, Leger said.
The church, with a construction price tag of $2.5 million, had been more than 75 percent complete, Robinson said. But nothing inside could have sparked a fire on its own, he believes. The electrical system had not been installed.
No one had done anything inside that could have started the fire, he said. Instead, he fears the building was targeted, with the timing of the fire too coincidental to make it random.
“Somebody came in there with an agenda of their own, I believe,” Robinson said, recalling days of black churches being torched in the South.
“I’ve seen segregation. I’ve seen Jim Crowism,” he said. “We’ve come quite a ways, but we’re not that perfect union yet. There’s obviously a remnant of that kind of behavior still being practiced, for whatever reason.”
The congregation had seen some resistance from the suburban neighborhood when construction was proposed, but the opposition was centered on having such a building in a residential area, and was not related to its 250 members, neighbors said.
Mayor Domenic J. Sarno said the fire, regardless of the cause, is heart-rending for the community. He said he met early yesterday with Robinson, an old friend of his family, and promised that the city would assist with the rebuilding while a task force conducts an extensive investigation.
“Obviously, it’s a tragic event,” said Sarno, who attended the groundbreaking for the church a year ago.
“It’s a sensitive situation. Any house of worship would be a sensitive situation, and that’s why it’s imperative the experts do their investigation.”
Milton Valencia can be reached at email@example.com.