Of­fi­cials: Mosque fire may re­main mys­tery

De­ter­min­ing cause of blaze near Lake Travis called ‘huge chal­lenge.’

Austin American-Statesman - - METRO & STATE - By Tony Plo­het­ski and Rachel Rice tplo­het­ski@states­man.com rrice@ac­n­news­pa­pers.com Fire

Au­thor­i­ties look­ing into the cause of a fire at an un­der-con­struc­tion mosque near Lake Tra

vis might never be able to of­fi­cially de­ter­mine whether it was in­ten­tion­ally set or sparked by some other cause, the lead in­ves­ti­ga­tor told the Amer­i­can-States­man and KVUE-TV on Tues­day.

The reve­la­tion by Travis County Fire Mar­shal Tony Call­away comes ex­actly two months af­ter the fire at the Is­lamic Cen­ter of Lake Tra- vis, which had prompted fears that the fa­cil­ity might have been tar­geted by an ar­son­ist.

Call­away said that, al­though the pos­si­bil­ity of ar­son re­mains a fo­cus of the fed­eral and lo­cal in­ves­ti­ga­tion, of­fi­cials are still work­ing to de­ter­mine whether an em­ber from a nearby fire might have caused the build­ing to ig­nite. In­ves­ti­ga­tors have iden­ti­fied sev­eral fires by prop­erty own­ers, such as those used for burn­ing trash, around the time of the blaze.

It also is pos­si­ble a home­less per­son — po­lice have doc­u­mented sev­eral in the area in Hud­son Bend at the time — seek­ing warmth or cook­ing might have ac­ci­den­tally started the fire, Call­away said.

Find­ing the cause “is a huge chal­lenge,” he said. “We an­a­lyzed the scene thor­oughly. But our goal is to be up­front and hon­est about where we are with it. There just hasn’t been any­thing that has led us down a cer­tain path.”

Part of the prob­lem, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cials, is that the Jan. 7 fire de­stroyed much of the ev­i­dence.

Call­away said that, in the two months since the fire, of­fi­cials ob­tained cel­lu­lar phone data that is still be­ing an­a­lyzed by the FBI to see if any­one of in­ter­est to law en­force­ment was in the area at the time.

He also said in­ves­ti­ga­tors have re­viewed hun­dreds of hours of se­cu­rity footage from nearby busi­nesses from around the time of the fire, but that those videos haven’t yielded any clues.

“We’re in the busi­ness of fire pre­ven­tion, and we’re in the busi­ness of fire in­ves­ti­ga­tion,” Deputy Fire Mar­shal Daniel Berger said. “We want to be able to have clo­sure any­time some­thing like this hap­pens. We want to be able to give an an­swer.”

Is­lamic Cen­ter of Lake Travis found­ing Board Mem­ber Sha­keel Rashed said the mem­bers would “all love to know what hap­pened” to the struc­ture, which was just months away from com­ple­tion.

“I un­der­stand how dif­fi­cult the sit­u­a­tion in our case is,” Rashed said. “The whole thing got burned down . ... There’s no way for them to find out which part the fire started off (from). So we un­der­stand the dif­fi­culty of where they’re com­ing from.”

The Is­lamic Cen­ter will re­build at its orig­i­nal lo­ca­tion, but a time­line is still up in the air, Rashed said. The board is wait­ing to hear from its in­surance com­pany be­fore launch­ing a fundrais­ing ef­fort.

But the group is still look­ing for a place to wor­ship dur­ing Ra­madan, which be­gins May 26. Since the in­ci­dent, Rashed said, the Is­lamic Cen­ter has focused its ef­forts on reach­ing out to the com­mu­nity at large.

“There are a lot of mis­con­cep­tions about Mus­lims, es­pe­cially be­cause of the way the me­dia and some vested in­ter­ests talk about us,” Rashed said. “It’s very im­por­tant from our side to show who we are and to get more en­gaged.”

Of­fi­cials said they are keep­ing their tip line open for any­one with in­for­ma­tion on the fire. The num­ber is 1-877-434-7345.

CON­TRIB­UTED BY IS­LAMIC CEN­TER OF LAKE TRAVIS VIA FACE­BOOK

Of­fi­cials say much of the ev­i­dence was de­stroyed in a fire Jan. 7 at the un­der-con­struc­tion Is­lamic Cen­ter of Lake Travis. The pos­si­bil­ity of ar­son re­mains a fo­cus of the probe.

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