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Gatlinburg fire suspects elicit churches’ sympathy

GATLINBURG, Tenn. (BP) — The arrests of two teenagers in connection with deadly wildfires in and around Gatlinburg, Tenn., have provoked expressions of sadness from three local Southern Baptist congregations that lost buildings in the blaze.

The three Gatlinburg churches — Roaring Fork Baptist Church, First Baptist Church and Banner Baptist Church — also report God’s continued work in their midst, including at least four first-time professions of faith in Christ over the past two weeks.

Authorities announced the arrests Dec. 7, the Knoxville News Sentinel reported. The teens, whose names and genders have not been released, have been charged with aggravated arson in connection with a fire that started Nov. 23, killing at least 14 people and destroying more than 2,400 homes and businesses.

The suspects’ identities will become public if they are tried as adults, a possibility prosecutor Jimmy Dunn said is “on the table,” according to the News Sentinel.

Roaring Fork pastor Kim McCroskey told Baptist Press he “hate[s] to think” the suspects could “ruin their whole life by doing something like this.”

“I feel bad for them,” McCroskey said, because “they’re going to have to live with the consequences whether it was a prank or an intentional arson. They could potentially, if they’re tried as adults, be in jail for the rest of their lives.”

At Roaring Fork, demolition of the two destroyed buildings could begin Dec. 9, McCroskey said, noting the total out-of-pocket cost to tear down the charred structures likely will exceed $100,000 and deplete the church’s building fund.

Still, he trusts God to provide the necessary funds to rebuild and said church members want the remains of the old facility gone.

“Getting that rubble gone” will “be a victory for us,” McCroskey said. “It hurts just to look at it.”

One consolation has been seeing four people saved through Roaring Fork’s ministry since the fire, McCroskey said. Two individuals came to Christ through a devotional he presented at a local shelter. One decision came through the church’s Dec. 4 worship service at a local Christian camp facility and the other through the witness of a church member at a shelter.

One of the individuals saved told McCroskey’s wife, “I lost everything I had” in the fire, “but now I have everything I need.”

First Baptist pastor Larry Burcham told BP the congregation is scheduled to hold Sunday worship services in its facility Dec. 11 for the first time since fire destroyed a building used for youth ministry and as a custodian’s residence among other functions.

Though the main church building sustained no fire damage, Burcham said, cleaning out the soot and smell has taken two weeks.

First Baptist met at a local high school auditorium last Sunday, and it “turned out to be kind of awesome,” with “a lot of the community in attendance,” including first responders, Burcham said.

The arrests lead Burcham to feel “sadness” and “hurt,” he noted.

Banner Baptist, which lost its fellowship hall and sustained damage to two other buildings, also plans to be back in its facility for the first time Dec. 11.

Pastor Pete Lamon told BP a larger concern for him than the church buildings is seven families in the congregation that lost their homes.

“That may sound insignificant,” Lamon said. “But that’s 25 percent of our congregation. That’s where we’re really focusing our time and energy right now.”

While relief organizations are providing the families with immediate necessities, Banner Baptist is attempting to meet “short-term sustainable needs,” Lamon said, which include housing, appliances and furniture.

“We’re trying to develop a list of [items] that we can gather and store and be ready to give these families as they need it,” Lamon said.

Tennessee Baptist Convention disaster relief specialist Wes Jones told BP a combination of approximately 40 local and trained outside volunteers are on site in Gatlinburg, providing services including feeding, property assessments, shower and laundry units and chainsaw-aided cleanup.