Deacon Larry Tong examines extensive interior damage to the main sanctuary at the Emmanuel Baptist Church on Wednesday. It appears the fire started in a vehicle outside the back wall of the church Tuesday night.

Deacon Larry Tong examines extensive interior damage to the main sanctuary at the Emmanuel Baptist Church on Wednesday. It appears the fire started in a vehicle outside the back wall of the church Tuesday night.

Intentional fire leaves church leaders asking for prayers

Shattered glass now covers the entrance where Emmanuel Baptist Church members usually gather before the 11 a.m. Sunday service, one of many signs a terrible fire visited the house of worship Tuesday night.

Capital City Fire/Rescue is working with the Juneau Police Department to investigate what Fire Marshal Dan Jager called an intentional fire while standing outside the structure Wednesday afternoon.

Jager said it is too early to confirm the exact cause of the fire, but one theory is a car parked behind the church — only three feet from a church wall — may have been set on fire first before the flames spread to the building.

“We’re just trying to catch our breath,” Deacon Larry Tong said, standing near what he called the “hot spot” where a 2004 Buick LeSabre was once parked. The car was a tithe by a former church member to help church leaders attract a new pastor; now it’s a melted piece of evidence at JPD headquarters.

“This is from the heart, (we ask for) prayer for the person who did this,” Tong said. “Just think about what kind of problems would a person have that they would purposely burn down a church. It’s so sad.”

CCFR Assistant Chief Ed Quinto said his crew battled the structure fire at 10490 Glacier Highway for about an hour, checking first for people. The 14-foot ceilings proved challenging for Quinto’s crew, who had only 12-foot ladders available. Standing at the center of the water-covered worship room, a break in the ceiling reveals where firefighters created a vent for smoke to escape.

“It’s pretty obvious it was suspicious,” Quinto said. “The evidence pointed in that direction.”

Three fire engines, one ladder truck, a medical unit and several smaller fire units were used to extinguish the fire. No injuries were reported and the estimated cost of damage isn’t yet unavailable.

But finances aren’t an issue for Tong; he said that’s what the insurance is for.

Quinto said firefighters managed to take several musical instruments from the main fire-ridden room to a nearby area for safekeeping. Several saved items belonged to another church, the Juneau Korean Church, which shares the building with Emmanuel Baptist.

The department is not releasing specifics surrounding the evidence since the investigation is ongoing. Tong said he found empty plastic bottles, possibly from Gatorade drinks, and small plastic bags in the shed where a padlock was broken. He suspects someones may have taken fuel from a jerrycan used for lawn maintenance to set the car on fire.

Jager said everything is being considered, but whether the bottles and bags are connected to the person who started the fire is not certain. One fuel-carrying jerrycan was taken as evidence for fingerprinting.

The case has not been turned over to federal authorities yet, but that is a possibility down the road to help rule out a hate crime since a religious structure was involved.

Tong told Jager about strange encounters with past church members, but in the end he said he didn’t know anyone angry enough to cause this type of damage.

Church member Josh Moeser said he drove out to the church after finishing his night shift in the mines. Seeing there wasn’t anything he could do then, he and his wife, Shannon Moeser, came out later that day with tarps to help protect what remains within the smoked-covered walls of the church they have attended for seven years.

“It’s my obligation as a church member,” Josh Moeser said. “I wanted to come here, take a look and cover that hole in the roof.”

Moeser said he also wanted to look around the shed to see what he could identify as belonging to the church and what was foreign. He’s seen damage to the church before, but nothing like this.

“It’s pretty frustrating with all the activity we’ve had out here in the early part of the year,” Moeser said.

Moeser and Tong said the church parking lot has been used by people at night for possible four-wheeling tricks in the past, causing rocks to ricochet at the church’s windows. Church leaders put up cameras to identify those responsible.

Unfortunately, those cameras were not on Tuesday night when the fire was set, but footage of past offenders has been passed on to JPD and CCFR to help the investigation.

In the meantime, members from both the affected churches have been promised a place to worship at Glacier Valley Baptist Church. Combined, the two churches have under 40 members and could easily meet in living rooms if need be, Tong joked. But he said the small size of his congregation does not match the pain the fire has caused his church community.

On what the church needs from the community now, Tong had this to say: “Prayer, just prayer.”

The Juneau Police Department and the CCFR Fire Marshal’s office are continuing to investigate the fire and have asked that anyone with any information, no matter how seemingly insignificant, call 586-5322.

• Contact reporter Paula Ann Solis at 523-2272 or at paula.solis@juneauempire.com.

Firefighters with Capital City Fire/Rescue at Emmanuel Baptist Church on Wednesday morning. The church caught fire just before midnight Tuesday.

Firefighters with Capital City Fire/Rescue at Emmanuel Baptist Church on Wednesday morning. The church caught fire just before midnight Tuesday.

Capital City Fire/Rescue Fire Marshal Daniel Jager, right, and Deputy Fire Marshal Sven Pearson investigate a fire at the Emmanuel Baptist Church on Wednesday. It appears the fire started in a vehicle outside the back wall of the church Tuesday night.

Capital City Fire/Rescue Fire Marshal Daniel Jager, right, and Deputy Fire Marshal Sven Pearson investigate a fire at the Emmanuel Baptist Church on Wednesday. It appears the fire started in a vehicle outside the back wall of the church Tuesday night.

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