PATERSON - Fire officials on Monday started demolishing a historic building destroyed by a Sunday fire to aid them in an arson investigation. The building, at West Railway and Genessee avenues, was owned by the Islamic Center of Passaic County, and mosque leaders worried that it might be a bias attack. But authorities said on Monday that it was still too early to determine the cause of the fire. Arson investigators from the city Fire Department and the county Prosecutor's Office weren't able to venture very far into the building because of the precariousness of the structure, according to Passaic County Prosecutor James Avigliano. "We haven't ruled out anything," Avigliano said. "There's nothing to indicate at this point in time how this fire started. If it's an accidental fire, there's no bias." The fire started late Sunday afternoon and ripped through the three-story building's wooden rafters and floors. Within the first hour, the building partially collapsed onto itself. The blaze was mostly extinguished by Sunday evening, but on Monday afternoon, firefighters were still wetting down hot spots. All that was left were charred beams and a few sections of wall sticking up from a pile of bricks.
The mosque bought the property, a 110-year-old former lighting factory, for nearly $1.2 million in 2003. It was planning to use it for a community center, with a pre-school, after-school programs and a food market. The mosque hadn't purchased fire insurance, because it wasn't sure whether the building would be demolished or salvaged, said Nabil Abbassi, head of the Islamic Center's development committee, and a former mosque president. Mosque officials had been waiting to hear from the city's Historic Preservation Commission about whether the building had to be preserved. On Monday morning, Abbassi stood in front of the charred remains of the building. He glanced at the pile of bricks, then looked away. "I'm very sad - sad only because if it was arson in any way, it's not good," he said. "If it's an act of God, though, we take it in stride." Mosque leaders increased security at the Islamic Center on Sunday night after news of the fire. Men stood guard outside the doors, and will continue to do so during busy prayer sessions, said Abbassi. Leaders of the mosque were already on high alert before the fire. Reports of hate crimes against Muslims have increased nationwide in the last few years, according to the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group CAIR, the Council of American Islamic Relations. The number of New Jersey incidents reported to CAIR climbed from one in 2002 to seven in 2004. (MORE)