An arsonist struck on Christmas Day, resulting in a huge loss for members of a Jehovah's Witness congregation in northwest Phoenix and prompting an investigation by federal authorities.
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Firefighters said the Kingdom Hall was intentionally set ablaze, causing an estimated $1.2 million in damages.
"You take it personal because it's your building, it's your house of worship," said Bob Reyna of Sun City. "It's something depressing, but at the same time, we look at it as a chance to grow and rebuild. It makes us stronger."
Reyna is an overseer of the Lakeview Congregation, one of the four that meet at that Kingdom Hall for five weekly meetings.
Volunteers built the cream-color stucco building about two decades ago.
There have been a few problems in the past, some in the parking lot behind the church where people gather to party out of sight from the road. Vandals also tagged the front doors with graffiti earlier this year.
But there never was anything to prepare the more than 500 congregants for the gaping hole on top of their worship hall created by roaring flames.
"It's a shock," said Bill Oetjen, a Glendale resident who belongs to the Deer Valley Congregation, 4806 W. Saguaro Park Lane, about five blocks south of Happy Valley Road.
Oetjen and other Jehovah's Witnesses stood outside the charred building Thursday surveying the destruction.
Linda Lierman, who belongs to a west Phoenix congregation, heard about the fire on the news and drove to the site to inspect the damage for herself.
"It's awful," Lierman said"It's heartbreaking."
Without disclosing details, Bob Khan, an assistant fire chief for the Phoenix Fire Department, said investigators have determined the structure was intentionally set afire, but no motive has been established.
Investigators for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives will assist in the investigation, Khan said.
A security fence was put up around the crime scene and guards stood watch to preserve it for investigators, who will comb through the ashes.
Members, including Oetjen, said they don't know why somebody would set the one-story building on fire.
"A lot of the friends are hurt and upset, but we look at it as a sign of the times," Reyna said. "We'll rebuild. We'll go back to meeting there again. We're not going to let this get us down."