PENSACOLA NEW JOURNAL

Fire guts old church
Officials suspect arson in Tuesday's blaze

Sean Smith
@PensacolaNewsJournal.com

Tiny, wooden Crabtree Church in Barrineau Park has been rebuilt and refurbished following hurricanes, a lightning fire and some petty vandalism since Walter Crabtree's grandfather built it in 1898.

But nothing like this: Arson is suspected after Molino volunteer firefighters found the church engulfed in flames about 9:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Flames gutted the wooden structure that stood at the intersection of two country roads for close to 105 years. A few charred hymnals - used every year for an annual homecoming service - littered one corner of the church. One wooden pew is all that remains in a building that has stood as a landmark.

Chemicals found at the front of the church, the fire's point of origin, are being examined in a laboratory, State Fire Marshal Chris Powell said.

The State Fire Marshal's Office is offering a $2,500 reward for information leading to an arrest in the case. Powell said the U.S. Attorney's Office is involved because arson of churches falls under federal statutes.

If it is determined to be arson, agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms will be called in to assist, Powell said.

"We're talking with federal agencies to see where we stand on that," Powell said. "Right now we're investigating and asking anyone who knows something about this to come forward and help us."

The fire shocked nearby residents.

"Our entire family is saddened by what has happened," Crabtree said. "When you come to this area, people use that church as a reference. It was once a center of this community. It's a way of life that will be gone forever if we don't build it back."

The church's congregation moved to Aldergate Church on U.S. 29 in the '60s, Crabtree said, but the families and members of the community attend an annual homecoming service every September, as well as a Christmas service during the holiday season.

Edna and Bill Taylor keep yellowed photographs of the church services and of the grandchildren who have grown up with the church as part of the community.

Bill Taylor served as trustee of the church until he suffered a stroke in 1996.

"It was a historical landmark, and the families who gather on homecoming Sunday are descendents from the people who started the church. It has a lot of sentimental value," Edna Taylor said. "We've had some vandalism over the years, maybe a broken window, but nothing ever like this. It just breaks your heart that part of this community went up in flames over a senseless, senseless deed."