Police said a fire was started in an apparent attempt to ignite the leaking gas.
By HAROLD GWIN
VINDICATOR SHARON BUREAU
WEST MIDDLESEX, Pa. -- When workers building a Seventh-day Adventist Church at 1001 Wheatland Road in Shenango Township arrived for work earlier this week, they found the building shell filled with propane gas.
It didn't take long to pinpoint the source -- a cut gas line leading from an outdoor propane storage tank to a heater inside the building.
Police Chief Ronald Preston said it was an inept attempt at arson, the second at the church in a week.
Fire started: It appears that the leaking gas was supposed to be ignited by a fire started on the unfinished church altar at the other end of the building sometime late Tuesday night, Preston said.
Paper and other materials from a trash can had been dumped against the bare studs and insulation of the altar wall and ignited.
The blaze burned up the wall about 5 or 6 feet but then went out without igniting the gas fumes, which could have caused a massive explosion, Preston said.
"Divine intervention, I guess," he said, when asked why the fire went out. The arsonists entered the building through an unlocked window and the propane hose was deliberately cut, he said.
"Their sole purpose for being in there was to burn the building down," he said, noting there were a lot of valuable tools and other items lying around, but nothing was taken.
Previous attempt: He said workers found an empty small propane tank with a torch attached lying against one of the altar walls Feb. 6, but thought it had just been left there by a workman.
Police now think that was an earlier arson attempt, Preston said, noting that the tank nozzle had been left in the open position and the torch had apparently burned for some time. It burned a hole the size of a baseball through a wall stud.
That fire also failed to spread, he said.
Preston has contacted the FBI, which is expected to send in a special investigator who handles hate crimes.
This appears to be a case of ethnic intimidation, which is the formal charge in a case of a hate crime, Preston said, explaining that a crime against any religious or racial group is generally classified as a hate crime.
He said his department has stepped up patrols through the area and that other precautions have been taken to prevent another attempt to burn the church. The structure is about 75 percent complete, he said.
The church congregation now worships in rented space in Sharpsville.