Central Delaware: Arsonist targets three Felton-area churches


FELTON — Authorities said fires at three Felton-area churches early Tuesday were deliberately set with two reported within 21 minutes of each other and another about four hours later.


Assistant State Fire Marshal Michael G. Chionchio said Tuesday the arsons occurred at Healing Hands Christian Church at 546 Berrytown Road; at Manship Chapel at 4912 Burnite Mill Road; and at the Laws Mennonite Church at 4874 Carpenter Bridge Road.

Delaware State Police and the Delaware Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives also investigated, the Delaware State Fire Marshal’s office said.

“Investigators are working at all three scenes trying to find common denominators,” Mr. Chionchio said late Tuesday morning.

There were no injuries in the fires, authorities said.

The search is on for the person or persons who set the fires, according to Mr. Chionchio.

Anyone with information can call Delaware Crime Stoppers at (800) TIP-3333, officials said.

The blaze at Healing Hands Christian Church was called into the Felton Community Fire Company at 1:46 a.m., company officials said, and the fully involved fire destroyed the structure.

The Fire Marshal estimated the damage at $75,000.

As the Felton CFC was fighting the first blaze, company officials said, a second call arrived at 2:07 a.m. and reported a fire at Manship Chapel.

State and company officials said Felton and Frederica fire trucks were dispatched to the scene and extinguished the blaze, which caused an estimated $1,000 damage.

According to Felton First Assistant Chief Chris Clough, the officer in charge, there was little that could be done to save the Healing Hands building when firefighters arrived.

“The structure was well involved and partially collapsed,” he said. “Unfortunately, it was an old structure with no fire alarm system, so it was well advanced when someone saw it and called 911.”

For 15 minutes, Mr. Clough said, firefighters worked to bring the blaze under control, aiming to stop it from spreading to a nearby woods or nearby building across a parking lot.

After that, more time was spent dousing hot spots and debris.

A Delaware State Police trooper was among the first to arrive at the scene, Mr. Clough said, and blocked the road to divert traffic.

Approximately 20 Felton fire volunteers arrived at the scene, officials said, along with three engines, a command vehicle, and ambulance. The last personnel cleared out at roughly 4 a.m., Mr. Clough said.

The third call

The Frederica Volunteer Fire Company was called to the scene of the Laws Mennonite Church just before 5:30 a.m., officials said. The blaze caused an estimated $10,000 damage there, the fire marshal said.

In that blaze, Milford and Houston’s fire companies provided support with tankers, officials said. Frederica Deputy Chief Jerry Johnston said his company arrived with tanker, pumper and rescue trucks.

Mr. Johnston said he arrived at the scene within two minutes of the call and that heavy smoke was present.

Two Delaware State Police vehicles arrived at almost the same time, he said.

Entry was made through an unlocked door, he said, and a crew found a room with contents on fire.

“There were materials piled up near a wall in the corner,” according to Mr. Johnston.

Firefighters “did a quick knockdown,” Mr. Johnston said, and the blaze was extinguished within five minutes.

Also located in the Laws Mennonite Church basement was an oven with contents burning inside, Mr. Johnston said.

The fire was put out, he said, and the building sustained water, smoke, and structure damage.

Weather conditions added to the challenge, Mr. Johnston said.

“It was a wet night,” he said. “It was raining, and we had to deal with traffic, since people were pulling over wanting to see what was going on.”

Mutual assists key

A mutual assist from fire and police personnel was key, Mr. Johnston said.

“It was good that calls were made for assists, and we all worked well together,” he said. “We’re all doing this for the same reasons, which is to protect the community and help it remain as safe as possible.”

Felton’s Mr. Clough agreed that pre-arranged mutual aid helped out all involved.

“We always know that when we have fires, our neighbors will be there to assist us,” he said. “It’s rough on the churches that have to clean up in the aftermath.”

Most of the Frederica fire personnel had departed Laws Mennonite Church by 6:30 a.m., Mr. Johnston said, and the last truck left at approximately 8 a.m. after providing support for investigators.

Frederica firefighters had earlier been called to the Healing Hands Christian Church, Mr. Johnston said, but were then told “that it was on the ground” and never arrived.

Instead, units were diverted to the Manship Chapel incident. Mr. Johnston said he was then concerned about the origin of two church fires in such a short amount of time.

“We knew something wasn’t right about it, especially when a second church fire was called in,” he said.

The fast-breaking fire calls taxed the Felton volunteer service, Mr. Clough said.

By early afternoon, he said he was lacking sleep while working his day job, along with other company members.

“I’m sure there are some exhausted people right now who headed right to work in the morning after the responses,” he said. “There was no real time for them to rest, but I imagine they will sleep well tonight.”


By Craig Anderson