Members vow to rebuild fire-damaged mosque where Pulse shooter worshipped

Emergency personnel respond to the Islamic Center of Fort Pierce, which was set on fire in Fort Pierce, Fla., on Sept. 12, 2016. Photo courtesy of St. Lucie County Sheriff's Office/Handout via Reuters

ST. LUCIE COUNTY, Fla. — Whoever set fire to a portion of the Islamic Center of Fort Pierce has “terrorized our community,” a spokesman said, but the mosque will be reused as soon as possible.

The blaze at the facility — where Orlando Pulse nightclub mass shooter Omar Mateen used to worship — started at 12:40 a.m. Monday (Sept. 12). The cause is under investigation, fire officials said.

A video shows a person approaching the east side of the building just before a flash appears and fire breaks out, according to the St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office.

Wilfredo Ruiz, spokesman for the center and communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Florida, said no one can inspect the damage until law enforcement officials determine the area is no longer a crime scene.

“If it is repairable, they’re going to jump in immediately; I know that,” Ruiz said.

He said the majority of the blaze took place in an area where members typically have dinner just outside the entrance to the prayer hall.

“He terrorized our community. Still now he’s terrorizing our community because we don’t know where he’s at,” Ruiz said of the person responsible. “We don’t know what he’s capable of doing.”

Sheriff’s officials have said they’re confident the arsonist is a man.
The fire, Ruiz said, started about an hour after the last people left the facility after eating a dinner to break a voluntary fast.

Monday started Eid al-Adha, the Festival of Sacrifice, which commemorates the Prophet Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son at God’s command, and marks the end of Muslims’ annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Muslims mark the first day with prayers, followed by visits with family and friends, and the exchange of greetings and gifts throughout the four-day holiday.

Ruiz said those who worship at the Islamic Center could temporarily worship at Muslim Friends of Florida, also in Fort Pierce, or officials may rent another facility.

Sheriff’s Maj. David Thompson said video footage from the mosque shows a single person on a motorcycle approach the building. Shortly after that, a bright flash is seen “indicating that a fire occurred,” Thompson said.

“This individual was carrying a bottle of some sort of liquid and also some sort of paper,” he said.

Fire-charred roofs of buildings at the Islamic Center of Fort Pierce on Midway Road are seen hours after the mosque was set on fire in an arson attack on Sept. 12, 2016, in White City, Fla. Photo courtesy of Eric Hasert, The (Stuart, Fla.) News

Fire-charred roofs of buildings at the Islamic Center of Fort Pierce on Midway Road are seen hours after the mosque was set on fire on Sept. 12, 2016. Photo courtesy of Eric Hasert, The (Stuart, Fla.) News

The motorcycle possibly had saddlebags, and the rider, described as white or Hispanic, wore jeans with some sort of embroidery on the back pockets. He wore a button-down shirt and a “boonie” style hat, which is a soft hat with a wide brim.

The man waved his arm after the flash, perhaps indicating he suffered a burn, Thompson said.

Ruiz said the motive is “obviously hate.
” But Thompson said investigators aren’t sure.

“Because this is a place of worship, and … because this incident occurred on the anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, we are going to explore that, but we are not confident to say that is the case at this time,” he said.

Sunday was the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Jennifer Parsons, 41, lives opposite the Islamic Center on Midway Road. She said she was sleeping when she got a call about the fire.

“We ran down the stairs, came out the door right there and you can feel the heat,” she said. “It was just bad. The heat, that’s what got me was the heat.”

She took video that showed flames shooting high above the facility.

She said the top official at the Islamic center is her primary care doctor, who greatly helped her with her battle with breast cancer.

“These people are not mean people. They are nice people,” she said. “It’s just too much racism going on.”

The mosque has been the target of a couple of incidents since Mateen’s June 12  shooting rampage, which killed 49 people at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando. Mateen also died.

On June 26, dozens of motorcycle riders repeatedly circled the mosque in a “patriot cruise,” revving engines.

On July 2, Taylor Anthony Mazzanti, 25, was accused of attacking a member of the Islamic Center in its parking lot and then yelling at him to “go back to your country.” The injured man told deputies he’d been praying in the mosque before being confronted by Mazzanti and repeatedly punched in the face.

Mazzanti is charged with “aggravated battery — evidence prejudice on property of (a) religious institution.” He is pleading not guilty.

(Will Greenlee writes for The News in Stuart, Fla. Melissa E. Holsman at the newspaper also contributed.)