Shocked . . . Church members Laurie Jackson and Willow Cooper, 2, at the scene of the fire yesterday.
Shocked . . . Church members Laurie Jackson and Willow Cooper, 2, at the scene of the fire yesterday.

Arsonists strike church building


RICHARD Berends and his flock aren't about to let a fire stop their Coffs Harbour ministry.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints branch president was awoken Monday night by a churchgoer who saw their district office and family history centre in Bray Street engulfed in flames.

Detectives suspect the handiwork of arsonists and that the fire started in a rear storeroom. The damage is expected to go well beyond $50,000.

The congregation's primary meeting house, their chapel in nearby Perry Drive, was also broken into and ransacked that night. Police are now investigating a link between the two.

Fire crews were called to Bray Street at 8.20pm and arrived to see flames coming out the back window of the two-storey brick and iron building, which was well alight.

It took 20 firefighters from Coffs Harbour and Sawtell an hour to bring the blaze under control. They remained at the scene for another three hours to ensure there were no flare-ups.

Up to four of five classrooms in the centre have been gutted. The recreation hall has smoke damage, but Mr Berends believes it will be the first part of the centre back in use.

By far the biggest concern was the genealogy library, a vital resource which houses records of family histories worldwide on microfiche and disc.

Thankfully the flames spared it, but it has sustained water damage. Just how much was not known yesterday.

"A lot of people come here and use it," Mr Berends said.

"We place a great importance on the family histories. It is important to be learning about our ancestors and our past and learn where we came from.

"I was relieved to find the library wasn't on fire when I arrived last night. "It holds years and years worth of records and is of great importance to us and the local community who uses it.

"Water damage is better than fire. I guess now what we have to do is get the library up and running."

Mr Berends was heartened to see many of the 70-strong congregation rally outside the centre yesterday, and he's as determined as they are to move forward.

"To see a lot of people turn up shows just how much impact it's had on the local congregation," he said.

"They have a sense of belonging to it. Everyone is sad to see this happen."

The church has ministered from Perry Drive for 22 years and converted a former Bethel church into their office and library complex four years ago.

If you saw suspicious activity in the area between 6.30pm and 8.30pm on Monday, contact Coffs Harbour detectives on 6652 0299.

A report is now being prepared for the coroner.

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