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Historic Seattle Buddhist Temple and Documents Destroyed in Fire


Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple, a historic Buddhist community in the Jodo Shinshu tradition, fell victim to two successive fires last week. The fires began on 31 December and involved a 42-year-old man, Waylon Williams, who is accused of initiating a fire within the temple premises and then breaking into a nearby residence, according to the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.

Members of the temple are grieving the loss as they take stock of the damage, and work to build for the future.

“It felt like all the memories that I had were kind of being torn away,” said temple board member Marissa Wong. “I was really shocked because I couldn’t believe what was happening and then it kind of started settling in like oh, this is practically like my second home.” (KIRO7)

Williams stands charged with first-degree reckless burning, second-degree burglary, and residential burglary, with bail set at US$40,000. Records show that since 2001, Williams has been a subject of more than 50 arrest warrants.

According to charging documents, Williams told an officer that he believed he was being followed, “So I went into that church, and I’m sorry I started a fire.” (Seattle Times)

The initial fire broke out at around 11 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, with the Seattle Fire Department swiftly responding to reports of an blaze within the historic temple situated in Seattle’s First Hill neighborhood. Surveillance footage showed a man loitering near the temple’s entrance before entering the building and fleeing shortly before the fire erupted.

Williams admitted to police that he was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and was under the influence of methamphetamine. He claimed to be seeking refuge within the temple. Once inside, Williams encountered flammable materials and, allegedly while attempting to fortify himself in the basement, inadvertently ignited the fire.

The temple, home to invaluable historical archives yet to be digitized, suffered irreplaceable losses due to the blaze, temple board member Alex Sakamoto lamented.

Escaping the blaze, Williams subsequently intruded upon a nearby residence, throwing items around before his apprehension by law enforcement.

On 2 January, two days after the fire, smoldering embers from the initial conflagration flared up into a second fire at the temple, further ravaging the historical documents and destroying equipment belonging to Boy Scout Troop 252, Seattle’s last historically Japanese American troop. Scoutmaster Rob Ketcherside confirmed the loss of all troop gear stored in the basement, where the initial fire ignited. However, community members have rallied to support the troop by raising more than US$6,000 for replacement gear through an ongoing GoFundMe campaign.

Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple, established in 1901 by Japanese Americans, holds immense historical significance, hosting Boy Scout Troop 252 since 1939. The current temple, built in 1943, housed archives documenting the lives of members when they were held in American internment camps. The devastating loss of documents, artifacts, and equipment remains a profound blow to the community.

“By losing this, we’re losing this knowledge and history,” said minister assistant and temple board member Alex Sakamoto. (Seattle Times)

Wong noted: “A lot of those documents weren’t digitized yet. So everything that went up in flames is gone for good. So a lot of the history of our members and the generations of families that have been coming here a lot of those documents have been completely erased.” (KIRO7)

Williams faces an upcoming arraignment at the King County Courthouse on 17 January concerning the incident.

Throughout this ordeal, the temple’s members and the community at large have demonstrated resilience and unity, raising funds to rebuild and support those affected by these destructive fires.

See more

Man faces 3 felonies after fire at Seattle Buddhist temple (Seattle Times)
Seattle Buddhist Temple burns for second time after police say man barricaded himself inside (KIRO7)
Suspect in reckless burning of Buddhist temple said he smoked meth, believed he was being followed (KING5)
Replace Troop 252’s camping gear lost in fire (GoFundMe)
Seattle Betsuin Arson Restoration Fund (Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple)

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