Investigators search for cause of mosque fire (w/videos)

Jon Wilcox By Jon Wilcox

Jan. 28, 2017 at 11:30 p.m.
Updated Jan. 29, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.

Flames shoot through the roof of the Victoria Islamic Center.

Flames shoot through the roof of the Victoria Islamic Center.   Barclay Fernandez for The Victoria Advocate

Investigators are trying to determine the cause of a fire that gutted the Victoria Islamic Center and left the community reeling and rallying to rebuild hope.

The fire roared out of the darkness early Saturday. As firefighters battled the towering blaze, congregation members watched from the curb, overcome with emotion. Later, they prayed on the sidewalk across the street from the smoldering mosque.

"It's a house of worship," Shahid Hashmi, president of the center, said as he watched from across the street.

The mosque had hosted a congregational dinner only hours before, Hashmi said.

The fire attracted international media attention, fueled largely by its timing - only hours after President Donald Trump announced a ban on people from Muslim countries entering the United States.

However, mosque spokesman Abe Ajrami urged people not to rush to judgment and spoke of the love and support his congregation felt from Victoria and beyond.

"We ask the public ... to please do not politicize the situation," Ajrami said. "Please, give a chance to law enforcement. Let them take their time and do their job. We don't know what happened."

Firefighters and several engines were dispatched at 2:13 a.m. to the burning building, 201 E. Airline Road, said Victoria Fire Chief Taner Drake.

Paul Hulbert, a clerk at a nearby 7-Eleven convenience store and gas station, said he called the fire department after he saw smoke and flames while taking out the trash. He said he noticed nothing suspicious at the mosque before or after the fire.

Drake said the Victoria Fire Department was notified of the fire at 2:10 a.m. At 2:19 a.m., the first fire crews arrived and began to battle the blaze.

Because of the fire's intensity, firefighters us defensive strategies, spraying water from atop extended fire engine ladders instead of entering the burning building. By 4 a.m., the fire was under control, and the mosque was destroyed.

At an evening news conference, Drake said investigators have more questions than answers so far.

"Fire investigations are sometimes very, very tedious, and you have to literally look through all evidence with a fine-toothed comb," Drake said. "That process can take days, weeks or even months to determine."

The Victoria Fire Marshal's Office will receive assistance from investigators from the State Fire Marshal's Office and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Several residents of East Hiller Street, a quiet neighborhood which lies adjacent to the mosque, reported witnessing nothing suspicious.

Like many of her neighbors, Yvonne Rodriguez only noticed the mosque was burning when the building already was consumed by fire.

Hashmi said he was surprised by the intensity of the fire. The building contained no significant amount of flammable materials to his knowledge, he said.

The mosque was burglarized Jan. 22, but Hashmi was unwilling to speculate the fire was the result of arson. The morning of the burglary, a rear door was smashed open and numerous electronics were stolen, including iPads, laptops and smartphones.

Drake said he could not yet say in what part of the building the fire likely started. But Rodriguez, said she thought the rear of the building appeared to burn the most stubbornly and intensely.

Although Hashmi said the Victoria Islamic Center has received mostly support from the Victoria community, at least two incidents of vandalism have been documented.

In July 2013, a teenager admitted to spraypainting "H8," a computer shorthand for "hate," on the center's exterior.

Hashmi said that vandalism was not the result of hate but rather boredom. The teen vandal was forgiven by the mosque's members after their parents discovered the crime.

In 2001, a pig's head was left on the the doorstep of the mosque, prompting the installation of security cameras.

Those cameras were functioning when Saturday's fire broke out, Hashmi said, and the footage has been turned over to the Victoria Police Department.

Completed in 2000, the mosque has served about 2,000 members who have come and gone, Hashmi said. After the group was founded by Hashmi and two others in the early 1980s, prayers and events were held in a rental house, rather than a traditional mosque.

Most recently, the center was home to about 130 congregation members and served as a place of worship and community gathering, Hashmi said.

Although he said he was shaken by the fire, the mosque's president vowed the center will be rebuilt.

At Saturday's press conference, Ajrami expressed unwavering optimism and thanked those who had donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to rebuild the structure.

"We are going to have a great open house in a few months," he said. "You are all going to be invited."

For complete coverage of the fire visit our Special Projects page at www.victoriaadvocate.com/mosquefire.


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