published Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

Walker County church fire ruled arson

  • photo
    Walker County Assistant Fire Chief Waymond Westbrook holds a sign he will put in the yard of the Garretts Chapel Baptist Church following the apparent arson of the 80 year-old building.
    Photo by Tim Barber.
    enlarge photo

After losing their sanctuary to flames Sunday night, Garretts Chapel Baptist Church members had a second blow Tuesday when investigators told them the fire was started on purpose.

“It’s just so heartbreaking to know somebody could do that to our church,” said church secretary and pianist Donna Nave, her voice raspy.

Investigators believe the fire that destroyed the Walker County church of about 50 members intentionally was started in the hallway that connected the church’s two buildings, Walker County Assistant Fire Chief Waymond Westbrook said.

More than likely, the culprit broke through the glass on the hallway door and lit the section on fire, Westbrook said, but investigators don’t have any solid leads or know what was used to start the flames.

Nave said she and several other members were decorating the church for the coming week of vacation Bible school and locked the doors around 9 p.m. Sunday. Less than two hours later, she got a call from a neighbor that the church was on fire.

Nave and her husband rushed back and, as the firefighters tried to douse the flames, they watched as the church steeple slowly toppled, then disappeared in flames.

“It was like one of my kids or someone close to me had died,” she said.

Westbrook said firefighters spent the night putting out the blaze, but the church is a total loss.

Investigators hope someone will come forward who passed the church between 9:30 and 11 p.m., he said.

The state fire marshal is offering a $10,000 reward to anyone with information that leads to an arrest and conviction.

about Joy Lukachick Smith...

Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...

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