District officials are investigating an arson that could potentially have destroyed a church near campus Tuesday morning.
The basement of the Western Presbyterian Church on 24th and G streets was set ablaze for several minutes at about 3:30 a.m. Tuesday. The D.C. Arson Task force – which consists of the Fire Department, Metropolitan Police Department, and the Bureau of Tobacco and Firearms – is investigating the matter.
An unknown perpetrator jumped over a steel fence and knocked a hole in a double-pane Plexiglass window in the basement of the building, said pastor John Wimberly. They then poured gasoline into the room and lit it with a match.
The fire quickly climbed up the walls and was extinguished soon after by a sprinkler above the window. MPD, D.C. Fire and the University Police Department responded to a fire alarm.
“The arson (task force) said the intent was to burn the church down,” Wimberly said. “They said if you want to burn a building down, you start at the basement.”
Wimberly added the church has received no threats since the incident, which leads him to think it wasn’t a hate crime.
Miriam’s Kitchen – an organization that feeds homeless people – hosts breakfast in the basement every weekday.
Wimberly said that around 4 a.m. homeless people gathered outside the church helped remove water collecting on the floor. He estimated the cost of the damage to be several thousand dollars.
The GW Muslim Students’ Association holds prayer services in the basement of the church every Friday. Sophomore Deena Elmaghrabi, vice president of the MSA, said about 100 students pray there every week.
She said she does not think the arson was an attack on her organization, though she cannot rule out the possibility.
“I honestly don’t know (the intentions), because it could be directed at the church, it could be directed at us,” Elmaghrabi said.
She added, “I guess in a situation like this you just have to be open to any possibility.”
The basement is regularly used by Christians, Muslims, Ethiopians and homeless people. Wimberly said the attack could have been directed at any of these groups.
“The fifth option is that it’s none of the above and it’s just someone who wants to burn down a building,” Wimberly said. “And there’s people like that.”
A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office said an arson incident that causes more than $200 in damages is classified as a felony.