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Monday, October 02, 2006

Arson Suspected in Church Blaze

Arson suspected in church blaze
3-year-old building in Hartford sustains estimated $1 million in damage
Posted: Sept. 30, 2006
Hartford - Shocked parishioners were left hoping to rebuild after St. Aidan's Episcopal Church sustained an estimated $1 million in fire damage Saturday in what might have been the latest in a series of local arsons.

St. Aidans Episcopal Church Fire

Firefighters were able to save a cross from the steeple after an early morning fire Saturday destroyed St. Aidans Episcopal Church in Hartford.

The building can be rebuilt, but our church is our congregation.

- Brian Schrunk,

a congregation leader

"It's terrible," said Elda Sexton, a member of the church, which was built just three years ago at 670 E. Monroe Ave.

Investigators said they believed the fire that broke out about 3 a.m. was intentionally set.

Fire Chief Paul Stephans said investigators were trying to determine whether the blaze was related to other suspicious fires that have occurred recently in a Hartford garage, some vehicles and trash bins.

Noting that the church fire was the most serious yet, Stephans said, "It does appear that, if this was the work of the same person, it has escalated."

Joining the investigation were Hartford police, the state fire marshal's office and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Investigators posted a $5,000 reward for information leading to a suspect.

In a prepared statement, the Fire Department cited evidence of "a rash of other arson fires" in Hartford.

The Rev. Michael Tess, pastor of the church, said his devastation grew more intense after he heard that an arsonist had targeted the church, which opened just three years ago after a lengthy fund-raising and building effort.

"This is malicious," Tess said. "It hurts even more now."

According to the Fire Department, the church was found in flames shortly after 3 a.m. after a nearby resident telephoned authorities to report smelling smoke. Firefighters battled the blaze for about three hours with help from neighboring fire departments.

Although the structure was not destroyed, Stephans said, damage was nearly $1 million - roughly the same amount it took to build the church.

"It may be damaged to the point of being beyond repair," the chief said.

Parishioners gathered for a prayer service Saturday outside their charred sanctuary, and they planned to return today for regular Sunday services under a tent.

Brian Schrunk, a leader of the congregation, said he was grateful that the fire did not break out while worshippers were inside.

"The building can be rebuilt," he said, "but our church is our congregation."

St. Aidan's began five years ago with about 30 families and has grown to 120 families.

Church members said they had no reason to believe that an arsonist would target the Episcopal congregation for any specific reason.

Stephans would not say what caused investigators to conclude the fire was intentionally set, although he said there were "indicators left on the scene."

William Boswell, an investigator with the state fire marshal's office, declined to comment.

Parishioner Barbara Lindert said the fire made her angry, because the congregation's many years of planning and fund raising had nearly been undone.

Lindert, however, was already thinking about rebuilding.

"We've got a tough row to hoe," she said. "Just say a prayer for us, because I think we're going to need it."

Anyone with information about the St. Aidan's Church fire can call the Wisconsin Arson Hotline anonymously at (800) 362-3005


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