An arsonist raced through Midland just past midnight Thursday morning, Sept. 5, torching an abandoned house, a car and destroying Golgotha Baptist Church.
Pierce County Sheriff’s deputies believe he was about to set fire to an occupied home when they captured him.
Firefighters saw a man walk away from the burning church when they arrived, and deputies swarmed the neighborhood around East 84th Street and Portland Avenue searching for him.
“We got a call about somebody trying to break into a house,” Pierce County Sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer said. “We responded and snatched him up. He made statements that he was going to burn that house, too. We have no doubt that he is the arsonist, and that he acted alone.”
The suspect is 30 years old, Troyer said, and spends time in Vancouver, Wash., and Tacoma.
“He is back from Vancouver to here, where he has relatives,” Troyer said. “In fact, he has relatives in the neighborhood.”
The man, who has been booked into Pierce County Jail, has a criminal record in Pierce County and was disoriented when he was arrested.
“It is quite obvious that he has mental health issues, whether or not they were assisted by drugs or alcohol,” Troyer said.
The suspect did not target the church, he added. “He was randomly lighting fires.”
It is the second time a building has burned on the site where the church stands. On Aug. 12, 1987, fire destroyed Weir’s Appliance, which later moved to 112th Street East and Portland Avenue.
Harvard Covenant Church built on the site and in March 2012 sold it to Golgotha Baptist Church for $700,000, according to the Pierce County Assessor’s website.
Thursday morning, Golgotha Baptist Church members came to the campus at 1611 85th St. E. on Portland Avenue to see the damage, and try to make sense of it.
Pastor Pavel Sandu’s eyes were red from fatigue, smoke and sadness.
The caretaker, who lives in a cottage by the church, had called him around 1 a.m. Flames were coming from the building, and Central Pierce Fire & Rescue was on the way from its nearby station in Midland. By the time Sandu arrived, the flames were through the roof, firefighters from Tacoma and Graham were on their way, and Portland Avenue was racing with law enforcement vehicles.
Sandu stood through the night, praying.
By morning, firefighters had drenched the building, sawed through the roof to vent the heat, and beaten the flames before they reached the sanctuary.
“The fire did not get there, or the water. Just the smoke,” said men’s choir director Lurie Cernacovschi.
Whether that end of the building can be salvaged is up to fire marshals and building inspectors, he said.
Fire inspectors told Sandu that someone had put an accelerant over the main entrance, and the fire spread upstairs and into the community rooms and offices.
“He is in custody,” Sandu said. “I don’t know who this guy is, or why.”
“I heard they got him,” Cernacovschi said. “He is just a person who was conducted by evil. I believe it’s a battle between good and bad.”
Here, he said, the bad overtook the good they had achieved after much struggle.
Congregation members are from Moldova, in the former Soviet Union, and have been working for decades for their own building, which was insured.
Now, 18 months after they bought that building, it is charred.
“Every member of this church is here because of persecution,” Sandu said, shaking his head.
The building had served them as a church home and community center.
“Culturally, we stick together,” he said. “Every baby shower, every birthday, every day of the week, this was our home.”
Men come every day for coffee, and to play ping-pong. The men’s choir had a practice set for Thursday night.
“Tomorrow, we have a wedding,” Sandu said.
Except, they don’t.
By mid-morning Thursday, pastors of other churches and other denominations were praying with Sandu, and offering to share their sanctuaries. Calvary Baptist Church will host the wedding.
“Everybody is coming, saying a little prayer and crying a little more,” he said. “We are not alone.”
As he watched his church burn, his prayers transformed his anger and questions into a lesson.
“Like a man, I have many questions,” he said. “As a Christian, it is a lesson. I am asking God what I need to learn from this.”