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TMCNet:  Rockingham church fires leave some asking 'why?'

[January 03, 2013]

Rockingham church fires leave some asking 'why?'

STOKESDALE, Jan 03, 2013 (News & Record - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Two church fires in two days.

The thought of that still troubled the Rev. Craig Toth on Wednesday.

"I'm still kind of in a daze," he admitted.

It was around 10 p.m. Sunday when his Mount Zion United Methodist Church was set on fire. The blaze, though, was contained before any significant damage could be done.

The same can't be said for what happened to Gideon Grove United Methodist Church a day earlier -- and four miles away.

It burned to the ground.

Two church fires in two days.

It's easy for Toth to draw a connection -- even if Rockingham County fire investigators are reluctant to do so.

"It's hard to imagine it's just a coincidence," Toth said.

On Wednesday, Rockingham County Fire Marshal Robert Cardwell wouldn't go that far, except to say there were no new leads and he couldn't provide any additional information on how the fires were started or if an accelerant was used.

Both fires were started behind the churches.

Both churches were vacant at the time.

But while the Mount Zion blaze was ruled an arson -- Toth said something was thrown through a rear window -- the cause of Gideon Grove's fire still is being determined.

Unlike Mount Zion, the damage at Gideon Grove was too extensive.

It took more than 70 firefighters to put out the blaze.

What remained wasn't much.

For many residents, both churches are the only places of worship they've ever known.

"This is the kind of thing you only read about," Toth said. "I think people are a little stunned." In response, the Rockingham County Sheriff's Office has beefed up patrols around the area's churches.

And while that may have deterred another arson from happening in the last few days, Toth worries about the future.

"It's kind of scary that someone's out there willing to do this. It's still hard to get my head around. You don't feel safe." Two church fires in two days.

On Wednesday, it was apparent that Toth was still struggling with how he felt about the incidents.

Like, why did it happen And will it happen again "Every time I drive by a church, I'm watching," he said.

It was four years ago that Toth came to Mount Zion. The church was built during the 1970s and has about 200 members -- 72 who regularly show up Sundays.

Toth said that about the most shocking thing that ever happens at Mount Zion is when a congregant unexpectedly passes.

That changed with a phone call Sunday night.

"Your church is on fire!" Toth recalled hearing.

He and his wife bolted out of their home.

"We didn't even put on our coats." When the couple arrived at Mount Zion, firefighters were already on the scene. At first, it looked as if the blaze had been extinguished.

"It wasn't until we walked around the back and saw the flames," Toth remembered. "We didn't know what to think. We were in shock." Firefighters had the blaze contained and extinguished within an hour.

Mount Zion's sanctuary was unscathed but the fellowship hall -- home to a nursery and Sunday school -- suffered moderate damage.

"It's a mess, but it still stands," Toth said.

But not at Gideon Grove. A pile of rubble and ash are all that remains of a once stately church.

That could've happened at Mount Zion, too.

Toth fears it still may.

Contact Mike Kernels at 373-7120.

___ (c)2013 the News & Record (Greensboro, N.C.) Visit the News & Record (Greensboro, N.C.) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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