Flames engulfed the Victoria Islamic Center, destroying the building in the predawn hours Saturday as congregation members watched from the curb, overcome with emotion.

“It’s a house of worship,” Shahid Hashmi, president of the center, said as he watched the flames from across the street.

Firefighters and several engines were dispatched to the burning building, 201 E. Airline Road, after 2 a.m. Fire crews and police officers arrived to find the mosque completely consumed in flames, said Battalion Chief Jeff Cowan, Victoria Fire Department.

Cowan said firefighters did not discover anyone inside the burning building.

Because of the fire's intensity, firefighters practiced defensive tactics, spraying water from extended ladders to control the flames.

Paul Hulbert, a clerk at a nearby 7-Eleven convenience store and gas station, said he called the fire department just before 2 a.m. 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.

Victoria Fire Marshal Tom Legler, who was on scene, said he had no theories about how the fire started. He said he would have to wait until the fire diminished to begin his investigation.

By 6:30 a.m., with the fire extinguished, Victoria Fire Marshal investigators were beginning their investigation into the fire's cause, he said. The Victoria Fire Marshal's Office has requested help in their investigation from the State Fire Marshal's Office and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

As investigators began their work, almost 20 members of mosque conducted the first prayer of the day on the sidewalk across the street from the destroyed mosque. Although sadness gripped those who had gathered to pray, Hashmi said, the congregation was unified in their desire to rebuild as soon as possible.

Saturday morning, members of the mosque planned to complete the day's remaining calls to prayer at the destroyed building, or as close as fire investigators will allow.

"They said it ... is a restricted area for now for the investigation," Hashmi said. "So, we just prayed right here on this" sidewalk.

And, members of the Victoria community, of all faiths, are invited to join members of the Victoria Islamic Center at 10 a.m. Sunday at the site of the destroyed mosque for a prayer service, he said.

Although Hashmi said the mosque was burglarized Jan. 21, he was unwilling to speculate that the fire was the result of arson.

In July 2013, a juvenile admitted to painting “H8,” a computer shorthand for “hate,” on the center’s exterior.

The center is home to more than 100 congregation members and serves as a place of worship and community gathering, Hashmi said.

The Victoria Fire Department has scheduled a press conference for 6 p.m. Saturday at 700 Main St., Suite 204, to discuss the fire. Fire Chief Taner Drake encouraged the public not to jump to any conclusions about the fire cause.

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

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Jon covers crime, public safety and the courts at the Victoria Advocate. Born in Huntsville, Ala., he grew up in Atlanta, Ga. and obtained a bachelor's degree in journalism at Texas State University.

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