Arson probed in loss of Murray United Church, second Merritt-area church to burn down in one day
The historic Murray United Church has stood on Highway 5A in the Nicola Valley since 1876, but all that remained by the time the sun rose Friday morning was its chimney, surrounded by a pile of ashes.
The church was one of two within a 10-minute drive in the Merritt area that caught fire around 2 a.m., and now police are investigating them as possible arsons.
Merritt Fire Rescue Department Capt. Carl Johnston said the single-room building was engulfed in flames by the time crews arrived, and the structure could not be saved.
The Crossroads Community Church on Voght Street in Merritt, across the street from the local RCMP detachment, was also damaged by fire. Police said that fire started in a back room by a suspect who broke into the church.
Investigators are now trying to determine if the two fires are related, and are looking for a possible vehicle that was involved as well as any witnesses.
“To have two fires at two churches in the same night is quite suspicious,” Merritt RCMP Const. Tracy Dunsmore said.
City councillor Mike Bhangu said the mayor has offered the congregations the use of city facilities in the wake of the fires and said Friday night’s incidents were tragic.
“Churches are the moral backbone of our communities, and when something like this happens it’s important for communities to come together,” Bhangu said.
Neither Dunsmore nor Bhangu would comment on whether they think the fires could be considered hate crimes, saying the motivation is still not clear.
A judge would have to decide during sentencing whether the crime falls under the definition of a hate crime. Canada’s Criminal Code doesn’t include hate crimes as a chargeable offence.
‘We couldn’t do anything’
Merritt’s youth pastor Anthony Rowden said he was shocked to hear the Murray Church burned down, calling it a landmark of the community.
“The community is definitely affected by it, and residents of the town who have been here longer than I have will definitely have some hurt feelings over what’s happened,” he said. “It will be really important to me as a pastor to talk through those feelings with them.”
Pam Taylor, who has lived across from the Murray Church for 70 years, witnessed first-hand the inferno that took it down.
“It’s a sad day,” Taylor told Global News Friday, saying she was alerted to the fire by her daughter, whose husband works for the fire department.
“My husband got up and we both went out to look, and sure enough it was on fire,” she said. “We both went out there and just had to wait for the fire department to get there, and stand and watch it. We couldn’t do anything.”
Taylor said the flames easily overtook the old wooden building, which burned down in less than an hour. She added the eeriest moment was when the church’s bell gave way and fell from the top of the church.
“We could see the bell was going to go, and we heard the firemen yelling, ‘get out of the way,’ and we heard it just come crashing down and give out one last gong. And that was it.”
—With files from the Canadian Press
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