Accelerant poured around Palin's church

Arson: entrances and exits were targeted; the senior pastor says he's not aware of any threats.

December 15, 2008 

WASILLA -- Whoever torched Gov. Sarah Palin's home church tried to start fires in several places around the building, the federal agency assisting in the investigation said Monday.

Accelerants were found in multiple locations on the outside of Wasilla Bible Church, including around entrances and exits, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Nick Starcevic, an ATF spokesman in Seattle, said it was not yet clear what type of accelerant was used. Samples have been taken to the state crime lab in Anchorage for testing. It could be up to two weeks before investigators find out the results, said James Steele, who heads the Central Mat-Su Fire Department.

Investigators typically take scrapings from where they think the fire was lit, said Assistant State Fire Marshal Kelly Nicolello. In this case, that could include parts of the outside of the building and the soil underneath.

The Friday night blaze caused an estimated $1 million in damage to the 2 1/2-year-old building and displaced one of the largest congregations in the Valley. The 35,314-square-foot building is valued between $4 million and $5 million, according to the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

Five church members were inside when the blaze started but they were able to get out safely after the fire alarm sounded.

The church, just off the Parks Highway on the western edge of town, conducts Sunday services attracting up to 1,000 people. Church members include many well-known Valley residents, including Palin, Rep. Carl Gatto, R-Palmer, and Mat-Su Borough Mayor Curt Menard and his wife, Sen.-elect Linda Menard, R-Wasilla.

Palin's ties to the church have sparked widespread speculation about whether the person who lit the fire was motivated by that connection. However, Steele said that idea remains in the realm of pure speculation.

"At this point, there is no information that we have that even points in that direction," he said.

At the church Tuesday, a somewhat bleary-eyed Rev. Larry Kroon was meeting with his staff and trying to sort out when the church would be usable again. The senior pastor said services could be held inside again as early as mid-January but it would depend on a variety of factors, including whether the blaze affected the building's structural integrity.

Outside, the church looked mostly untouched except for the back corner where black marks scorched the bottom of the building and a half-dozen large sheets of plywood had been tacked over broken windows and holes firefighters had cut to reach the blaze. The parking lot was deserted save for a half dozen vehicles of staff members and workers.

Inside, crews had gotten the lights back on but were still working on the heat and water. Portable heaters had been set up in the meantime and were pumping warm air into the building through snaking hoses.

Kroon said most of the damage was limited to a back corner of the church where offices and a classroom were located. But there was water damage throughout the two-story building, and there were places, like in the sanctuary, where smoke had curled in and left scorch marks on the upper walls and ceiling.

The building also reeked of a smell like burnt popcorn that coated everything, including, he said, the church collection plates used at a service Sunday at Wasilla Middle School.

While reluctant to say anything that might jeopardize the ongoing investigation, Kroon was clearly appalled someone had tried to set fire to the entrances and exits almost surely knowing, or at least suspecting, that people were inside. A half dozen cars were in the parking lot at the time, he said.

"It's not like lights were on all over the building, but I don't cut them the benefit of a doubt," he said.

As for specific threats against the church, he said, "I don't remember any threats."

While the fire is a large setback for a congregation that just moved into the building two years ago, Kroon and other church members said they have been cheered by an outpouring of support from across the country.

Gatto, who attended service Sunday at Wasilla Middle School, said it was, if anything, more lively than usual.

"I didn't sense from a single person or hear from a single person that anybody felt we were somehow compromised now without our building," he said. "You can replace times and buildings, but the message is the constant."

Palin was traveling to Juneau on Sunday and didn't attend the service but her husband, Todd, and four of their children did.

The investigation into the fire is being conducted by a joint task force. The Central Mat-Su Fire Department and Wasilla Police Department are heading up the investigation with help from the ATF and state fire marshal's office. State troopers responded to the scene but are not involved in the investigation, spokeswoman Megan Peters said.

Find S.J. Komarnitsky at www.adn.com/contact or 1-907-352-6714.

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