Officials: Cause of mosque fire near Lake Travis may never be known


Travis County Fire Marshal Tony Callaway says the possibility of arson remains a focus of the investigation.

Other possibilities include an ember from a nearby trash fire or a homeless camp, official says.

Part of the problem, officials say, is that the fire on Jan. 7 destroyed much of the evidence.

Authorities looking into the cause of a fire at an under-construction mosque near Lake Travis might never be able to officially determine whether it was intentionally set or sparked by some other cause, the lead investigator told the American-Statesman and KVUE-TV on Tuesday.

The revelation by Travis County Fire Marshal Tony Callaway comes exactly two months after the fire at the Islamic Center of Lake Travis, which had prompted fears that the facility might have been targeted by an arsonist.

Callaway said that, although the possibility of arson remains a focus of the federal and local investigation, officials are still working to determine whether an ember from a nearby fire might have caused the building to ignite. Investigators have identified several fires by property owners, such as those used for burning trash, around the time of the blaze.

It also is possible a homeless person — police have documented several in the area in Hudson Bend at the time — seeking warmth or cooking might have accidentally started the fire, Callaway said.

Finding the cause “is a huge challenge,” he said. “We analyzed the scene thoroughly. But our goal is to be up front and honest about where we are with it. There just hasn’t been anything that has led us down a certain path.”

Part of the problem, according to officials, is that the Jan. 7 fire destroyed much of the evidence.

Callaway said that, in the two months since the fire, officials obtained cellular phone data that is still being analyzed by the FBI to see if anyone of interest to law enforcement was in the area at the time.

He also said investigators have reviewed hundreds of hours of security footage from nearby businesses from around the time of the fire, but that those videos haven’t yielded any clues.

“We’re in the business of fire prevention, and we’re in the business of fire investigation,” Deputy Fire Marshal Daniel Berger said. “We want to be able to have closure anytime something like this happens. We want to be able to give an answer.”

Islamic Center of Lake Travis founding Board Member Shakeel Rashed said the members would “all love to know what happened” to the structure, which was just months away from completion.

“I understand how difficult the situation in our case is,” Rashed said. “The whole thing got burned down. … There’s no way for them to find out which part the fire started off (from). So we understand the difficulty of where they’re coming from.”

The Islamic Center will rebuild at its original location, but a timeline is still up in the air, Rashed said. The board is waiting to hear from its insurance company before launching a fundraising effort.

But the group is still looking for a place to worship during Ramadan, which begins May 26. Since the incident, Rashed said, the Islamic Center has focused its efforts on reaching out to the community at large.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about Muslims, especially because of the way the media and some vested interests talk about us,” Rashed said. “It’s very important from our side to show who we are and to get more engaged.”

Officials said they are keeping their tip line open for anyone with information on the fire. The number is 1-877-434-7345.

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