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Fire that destroyed Phoenix church investigated as arson, officials say

(Phoenix Fire Department Photo)

PHOENIX — Authorities are investigating the possibility of arson after a church in north Phoenix was destroyed by fire early Wednesday.

“Right now we have to go about it expecting the worst. It could be arson. It could be accidental,” Phoenix Fire Capt. Rob McDade told KTAR News 92.3 FM of the fire that destroyed St. Joseph’s Catholic Church.

McDade said the church’s upcoming 50th anniversary as well as the recent fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris are among the reasons investigators need to consider all possible causes.

“When we look at all of that, we’re not doing everybody justice if we don’t we make sure we … do all of our due diligence,” he said

“So we could come back in a couple of days and say you know what, it was an arson, it was an accident, and this is what happened.”

McDade said arson investigators are on the scene looking for surveillance footage, conducting interviews and using dogs to detect possible accelerants at the scene.

He said agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are also investigating the incident because it involved a church.

Flames were shooting through the attic of the church, near 40th Street and Shea Boulevard, when firefighters arrived around midnight.

The chapel and roof were destroyed but no one was injured, authorities said.

Emmanuel Presbyterian Church, about half a mile from the church, and a nearby school were also vandalized.

Phoenix Police Detective Luis Samudio said it was not immediately clear whether the incidents were related.

About 60 firefighters worked to keep the blaze from spreading to other buildings, including classrooms, on the property.

Units from Scottsdale also helped fight the fire, which gutted the chapel.

The Diocese of Phoenix said in a statement there were “tentative plans to celebrate Masses somewhere on the church property this weekend.”

The parish has been preparing for a 50th anniversary celebration, neighbor Linda Sunshine said.

She said the sounds and lights from helicopters and police cars drew her outside.

A police helicopter in pursuit of a suspect initially spotted smoke coming out of the church.

Sunshine said she could feel the heat from the blaze while she stood in her driveway.

“It’s a very nice church,” Sunshine said.

Parishioner Chris Wilgus has been with the church for nearly 30 years and worked in the office for a while.

“It’s devastating. Lot of memories — the children made their sacraments here,” Wilgus said.

U.S. Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.) tweeted he was sorry to hear about the destruction to the church, where he had served as an altar boy.

“I remember spending many of my Sundays there,” he wrote.

KTAR News 92.3 FM’s Jim Cross and Taylor Kinnerup contributed to this report.

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