Henderson County church fires not an accident - KLTV.com - Tyler, Longview, Jacksonville |ETX News

Henderson County church fires not an accident

By Sara Story - bio | email

HENDERSON COUNTY, TX (KLTV) - Investigators confirmed Wednesday that Monday night's church fires near Athens were the work of arson. Grace Community Church and Lake Athens Baptist Church were the second and third fires set since New Year's Day.     

"We can rebuild the building, but what we felt from the community is what rebuilds us," said an Athens resident during a community meeting on Wednesday. 

Despite the fires, set to burn a hole through Athens core, community leaders and investigators came together to fight back.

"I do appreciate our community," said another Athens resident. "I thank God for what's going on, and I do believe that resolution will come."

It is resolution that authorities are searching for.

"We are afraid that there is a pattern," said the Athens Fire Department Chief, John McQueary. "We are afraid that this is by the same individual, and we are afraid that it could continue."

Investigators are still looking into the causes of the fires. They said that there was forced entry at all three locations. Entry at Lake Athens Baptist Church was made by breaking into a back window.

"After they entered the building, we do believe that the fire was intentionally set," said Rodney Williams, the Assistant Chief of Athens Police Department.

"There is evidence that there was combustibles, but we have had some clues that there could be accelerants also," said Chief McQueary. 

The churches were burglarized before being set on fire. The estimated damage at Grace Community Church is half a million dollars. The loss at Lake Athens is still unknown.

"We have to just have faith that God is going to take care of it," said Aaron Austin, the Associate Pastor for Lake Athens Baptist Church. "It's a building. Had the whole thing burned, our people would have met in a pasture, a parking lot. It wouldn't change what we do or why."

It is a community trusting in more than just luck to catch the criminals. The churches in Athens are looking into ways to beef up their security. Some say they will have congregation members on patrol throughout the night, others will buy surveillance cameras.

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