‘Heartbreaking’: Arson suspected in fire that damaged historic church in Kansas City

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Federal and local fire investigators suspect arson is the cause of a fire over the weekend at a historic Harlem Baptist Church in Kansas City, North, a spokesman with the Kansas City office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said.

“They’ve determined that this was a set fire,” said John Ham, public information officer for the ATF in Kansas City. “Setting a fire in a house of worship is a federal crime.”

The church serves as the gathering place for the United Christian Fellowship. The congregation is mostly from the South Sudan.

The ATF, which has been investigating the fire with the Kansas City Police Department’s bomb and arson unit and an investigative unit from the Kansas City Fire Department, will take the lead, Ham said.

The fire was discovered about 9:15 a.m. Saturday at the church at 251 N. Baltimore Avenue, which is near Wheeler Downtown Airport.

When firefighters arrived, they saw smoke coming from the building. When they entered the church, they discovered that the front of the building and an area of stairs going down to the basement were fully engulfed in fire. It was determined that was where the fire started.

“As they started to egress that area, the stairway that led to the basement level of the church gave way,” Ham said. “That fireman that was on it was not hurt, thankfully. They were able to pull him out.”

The fire was brought under control a few minutes later, but not before it caused pretty heavy fire damage to the front of the church, Ham said.

“The actual sanctuary of the church was not impinged by fire,” he said. “The fire didn’t make it in there, but there’s smoke and water damage in there.”

Arriving firefighters noted that one of the two front doors was standing opened. Based on that, they contacted Kansas City police and the ATF, which has a Congressional mandate to investigate fires at houses of worship.

Federal and local officials have been investigating the cause of the fire since Saturday and determined by Sunday afternoon that it had been set, Ham said.

”We’ve recovered some very strong evidence, but anytime the community has information that they can share with us, it makes the investigation move that much more swiftly and give this church an opportunity for justice and an opportunity for healing,” Ham said.

Anyone with information about the fire is asked to call the TIPS Hotline at 816-474-TIPS (8477).

Fire investigators recovered a lot of forensic evidence that will be processed by the police department. Some of that evidence may be sent to the ATF’s fire laboratory.

Investigators have also conducted some interviews, which Ham said provided some promising information. They are also checking video from the surrounding businesses.

Once a suspect or suspects are identified, the ATF will work with the U.S. attorney’s office and the Clay County prosecutor’s office to determine which office has the better case.

The church is the last remaining original building of a community known as Harlem, which is just east of the Wheeler Downtown Airport. The name came from early immigrants from Northern Europe who said the topography of the area looked like Haarlem, a city outside of Amsterdam.

The area, which never incorporated, was founded around 1820 and served as a landing on the river for the steamboats bringing supplies and settlers. During it’s heyday, it had three churches, grocery stores, a livery stable, a saloon, a school, a justice court and two hotels.

Harlem Baptist Church was founded in 1907 as the Harlem Tabernacle Church.

“It was the center of social life for the community for 120 years,” said Jason Withington of Kansas City, one of the church’s trustees. “To find out that somebody intentionally set the fire, it’s just heartbreaking.”

The church became the Harlem Baptist Church until it ceased operations in 2005, he said. It sat vacant until the Sudanese congregation started gathering there about a dozen years ago. The church, however, still has a sign outside saying “Harlem Baptist Church.”

Withington first found out about the fire when his cousin who owns the business across the street called telling him to get down to the church.

“Honestly, I started crying because this church has meant so much to me and my family,” Withington said.

The church is where he was baptized and where his father was baptized. His grandparents went to the church for 60 years. His grandfather was even a deacon at the church.

“It’s heartbreaking to hear,” he said. “Especially when you have a great appreciation for the history of Harlem ... It’s really devastating.”

Withington said they have not been inside yet to assess the damage, so it’s too early to discuss what’s next for the church. He said hopes whoever set the fire turns themselves in.

There were no injuries in the fire and no one was in the church when firefighters arrived. The fire, however, put firefighters in danger.

“We’re very fortunate that we’re not standing here talking about a firefighter that’s in the hospital,” Ham said.

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