Fire Investigators Determine Cause of Virginia Theological Seminary Church Fire

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October 28, 2010

The National Response Team (NRT) from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), ATF Falls Church Field Division, and Alexandria Fire Marshal’s Office investigators have completed the on-scene investigation into the cause of the October  22nd fire at the chapel located at the Virginia Theological Seminary at 3737 Seminary Road.

The cause of the fire was ruled to be accidental, announced Alexandria Fire Chief Adam Thiel and Willie Brownlee, Special Agent in Charge, ATF National Response Team.  Investigators can say conclusively that the fire did start in the sacristy of the Chapel and was accidental in nature.

Over the course of six days, a team of investigators from ATF and the Alexandria Fire Marshal’s Office methodically removed the debris from the heavily damaged structure. The team of investigators took photographs, recovered fire debris from the scene for laboratory analysis, and conducted more than 40 interviews throughout the campus. The ATF National Response Team departed Alexandria Thursday.

The fire at the historic chapel was reported to the Fire Department at 3:49 pm on October 22.  Firefighters reported heavy smoke and fire coming from the Chapel located on the Seminary campus upon their arrival.  A second alarm and subsequent special alarm were dispatched to assist in fighting the fire.  The chapel sustained significant fire damage including a roof collapse.  “Because of the safe and effective firefighting operations by Alexandria and our partner jurisdictions, we were able to save the adjacent historic structures as well as a number of irreplaceable religious artifacts.”  said Alexandria Fire Chief Adam Thiel. 

Due to the size of the incident, Alexandria Fire Investigators requested assistance from the NRT.  Alexandria Fire Marshals and ATF investigators worked together as a team over the course of the investigation to determine the origin and cause of the fire.  “This investigation highlights what happens when investigators work together with a common goal in mind, “ said ATF National Response Team Special Agent in Charge Willie Brownlee.  “Our agents and laboratory personnel worked seamlessly with the Alexandria Fire Department and Fire Marshal’s Office to determine the cause of the fire that damaged the historic chapel at the Virginia Theological Seminary, which has special meaning and memories for many people.”

The fire damaged structure has now been turned over to officials at the Virginia Theological Seminary. The Chapel, built in 1881, was used daily for worship services.

No injuries were reported during the fire.   Damage is estimated at $2.5 million dollars.

ATF’s NRT, comprising ATF personnel from across the country, responded to the scene to work alongside local investigators. The NRT includes a canine team, certified fire investigators, forensic chemist, electrical and fire protection engineers, and additional specialists. This NRT activation was the 3rd this fiscal year and the 711th since the team was created.   More information on ATF and the NRT can be found at

For more information, contact Robert Rodriguez, Chief Fire Marshal / Community Services Officer, Alexandria Fire Department, at 703.746.5217 or