Walid Taha, 32, crossed caution tape to walk into the Victoria Islamic Center on Monday for the first time since it burned down early Saturday morning.

Taha observed how the building of worship was in ruins with rubble and mud on the mosque's floor and remnants of what was left hanging off the weak structure. He walked into each room and quietly looked around taking it all in.

"I don't know what to say," Taha said when asked how he felt. "The whole building, it's burned down."

The Victoria Fire Marshal's Office turned the mosque over to the congregation of the Victoria Islamic Center on Monday morning, which was the first time any of them had stepped inside since before the fire.

Imam Osama Hassan, mosque leader, visited the mosque at 8 a.m. Monday before the authorities gave it back to the congregation.

"It breaks my heart to see it this way," Hassan, 42, said, "This morning, I could not hold back my tears."

As Hassan stood in the area of his old office, he said the mosque was his first home, and he often spent up to 10 hours a day there for prayer and teaching.

Hassan walked over to a pile of Qurans and study books that fell from a bookshelf during the fire. He pointed out how the outside of the books were frayed, but the words inside were left untouched. Hassan plans to keep some of the books to remember what happened.

"This is where the kids used to study, in this room," Hassan said. "You can see where it burned, but the words, you can read them. It's amazing how God protects his book. There's nothing left - the wood, everything's burned - but the books are still here."

A gofundme account page set up to raise funds to rebuild the mosque had exceeded its goal of $850,000 and raised $938,787 as of 10 p.m. Monday. It had been shared via social media about 93,000 times.

The center did not have insurance during the fire, Hassan said, but congregation officials were in the process of getting it for the center.

"This shows there are a lot more good people in the world than bad people," Hassan said. "The people of Victoria help us to rebuild this place again. Just all of us, we would never be able to rebuild it. It's impossible for our small community."

Center officials have begun contacting companies to come demolish the mosque so they can begin rebuilding, Hassan said.

Plans have already begun for the new structure. They don't know yet if the foundation is still usable, Hassan said. It sustained a lot of pressure from the water and the fire.

The new mosque would be more secure and most likely have a steel frame instead of a wooden one, Hassan said.

For the new mosque, congregation officials are requesting input from the community for suggestions, said Abe Ajrami, 50. They will also visit other mosques to get ideas. The new mosque will most likely be bigger, he said.

"It sounds like the foundation has to go," Ajrami said. "We would like to preserve the dome and Quranic writings up front at the entrance."

Until the mosque is rebuilt, the congregation of about 130 people will gather in an adjacent building that the center previously used as a school. Since the fire, the congregation has been praying in an empty doctor's office, Hassan said.

Before the mosque burned, congregation members were cleaning out the adjacent building with plans to open a free health clinic, Hassan said. Those plans will have to still stand as the number one priority is to rebuild the mosque.

Internal medicine doctor Irfan Qureshi, 40, will be one of the doctors at the clinic, he said. They plan to have the free clinic open once a week, which could change based on volunteer and public responses.

"There are a lot of Victorians that don't have any financial resources for medical care," he said.

Investigators still have not determined a cause of the fire. Evidence collection effort has been finished by authorities, said O.C. Garza, City of Victoria spokesman, and the investigation has begun.

"These things take at minimum weeks, sometimes months because of the analysis that has to come from all theses agencies." Garza said. "We're basically waiting now for the evidence to be analyzed."

The State Fire Marshal's Office, Victoria Police Department, Victoria County Sheriff's Office and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are helping with the investigation, said Tom Legler, Victoria fire marshal.

"There's a lot of research and information that we have to gather related to building construction, weather patterns and everything," Legler said. "We're just starting to put all that together."

Congregation officials are working to get security footage to fire investigators, Ajrami said.

Qureshi said the entire congregation thanks the first responders and investigators for handling the situation professionally and being sensitive to their feelings and wishes.

About 400 community members attended a prayer rally Sunday morning at the destroyed mosque, which was led by various local religious leaders. The support the community has shown through the tragedy makes all the difference, Taha said.

"I think every single person in Victoria supports us," he said. "I'm proud to be and live in Victoria."

A memorial with support signs stand in front of the mosque, and a man came to Victoria on Sunday from Seguin to place them there, Ajrami said.

"There is a handmade drawing with a Bible verse from his young daughter," he said. "It was a wonderful gesture."

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

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Reporter

Kathryn Cargo covers business and agriculture in the Crossroads. She enjoys reporting on industry trends and getting her shoes dirty out in the field.

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