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Fire erupts at Town 'N Country mosque for second time in 10 days

Hillsborough County firefighters were called to the Islamic Education Center in Town 'N County to fight a blaze for the second time in 10 days Wednesday.  [DAN SULLIVAN  |  Times]
Hillsborough County firefighters were called to the Islamic Education Center in Town 'N County to fight a blaze for the second time in 10 days Wednesday. [DAN SULLIVAN | Times]
Published Jul. 28, 2016

TAMPA — Flames erupted Wednesday at a Town 'N Country mosque for the second time in 10 days, leaving local and federal investigators looking for answers.

Electricity got the blame for a July 17 fire at the Islamic Education Center on Rockpointe Drive, but a mosque official discounted that possibility this time, saying power had been cut off since the earlier blaze.

"Who would want to burn a burned place?" said board member Sallah Harake, puzzled. "Hopefully it's just a coincidence."

The IEC is one of two Shia mosques in Hillsborough County. The other, Madinatul Ilm, off Interstate 4, also had a fire last week, bringing the total this month to three. Authorities determined the first two fires were accidents.

Then, Wednesday, IEC caretaker Victor Perez, who lives near the mosque, said he heard popping noises, looked out and saw smoke. He said he ran to the front of the building and started dousing the flames with a hose. A neighbor called 911 sometime after 6 p.m.

Hillsborough Fire Rescue and the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office responded, as did the drenching rainfall of an afternoon storm.

By 8 p.m., agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were on scene. The agency investigates when there is a fire at a house of worship.

Harake learned of Wednesday's blaze from the Tampa Bay Times and rushed to the mosque. On the way, he said he hoped the fire wasn't at the mosque but simply nearby.

He spoke with fellow board member Jabbar Al-Mashahdani.

"I was here earlier, at 3," Al-Mashahdani said. "There was nothing here. Everything was normal."

In 2007, the same mosque was hit by an arsonist, who was never caught. Harake said people from all over the United States donated to rebuild.

Harake said the mosque has had past internal disputes, but he doesn't think anyone would want to burn it.

During Ramadan, the mosque had series of outdoor evening events. They hired off-duty deputy for security in the wake of Orlando.

A chain link gate surrounds the property.

"We should have installed cameras," Harake said.