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Arson Fire at Seattle Betsuin Destroys Archives; Man Arrested

Blaze Leaves HistoricalDocuments in Ruin and Shutters Temple

As 2023 came to a close, the Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple became the target of an arson fire which destroyed thousands of irreplaceable historical documents dating back to the temple’s inception in 1901.


Earlier that same day, an estimated 280 people had gathered at the Seattle Betsuin for the Joya-E (New Year’s Eve) service at noon on Dec. 31, 2023. The arson fire forced the cancellation of the New Year’s Day service on Jan. 1, and the temple will remain closed, pending the assessment of the smoke and fire damage.


On Jan. 2, the fire reignited as a flare-up, according to Seattle Fire. It was extinguished in about an hour, but caused more damage to the archival area in the temple’s basement, including Seattle Bon Odori and Boy Scout troop materials. 


No injuries were reported in either fire.


A 42-year-old man is accused of locking himself inside the Seattle Betsuin during a mental health crisis and setting fire to the building, then fleeing and breaking into a home nearby on Dec. 31, according to the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office in a story by King5.com, the website of KING-TV in Seattle.


Waylon Williams, of Richland, Washington, was charged on Jan. 4 with first-degree reckless burning, second-degree burglary and residential burglary, according to the charging documents. He was arraigned on Jan. 17 at the King County Courthouse. His bail was set at $40,000.


Since 2001, various Washington courts have issued more than 50 warrants for Williams’ arrest, according to charging documents.


Around 11 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, Seattle Fire Department crews responded to the Seattle Betsuin for reports of a fire that began inside the building. 


On surveillance footage, Seattle Police Department (SPD) officers saw a man hanging around the temple’s entrance before the fire and attempting to open the doors, charging documents stated. At some point, the man entered the building and was seen quickly leaving the building just before 11 p.m.


The man, later identified as Williams, reportedly told police that he was on meth and believed that federal government officials or gang members were following him, so he entered the temple for safety, documents stated.


Inside, Williams allegedly told police he found bottles of liquor and propane tanks, and that he was moving items around to barricade himself in the basement when the fire began.


As the fire inside the temple grew, Williams escaped the building and broke into a nearby home, charging documents stated.


Police did not refer to the fire as a hate crime investigation, according to the prosecuting attorney’s office. However, the case could be reviewed if police find information to support a possible hate crime.


The fire from the initial arson reignited as a flare-up on Jan. 2. Just before 2:30 p.m., Seattle Fire began receiving several calls and reports of smoke coming from the temple and found smoke on the first floor. The fire began in the basement and was extinguished by 3:30 p.m., according to Seattle Fire.


Both fires caused extensive damage to the temple’s basement, where historical documents and Seattle Bon Odori materials are located. The basement also housed the gear of Boy Scout Troop 252, the last historically Japanese American troop in Seattle, which has been meeting at the Seattle Betsuin since 1939. All of the troop’s gear was destroyed.


“By losing all of these records, we’re losing a lot of history of the church that unfortunately wasn’t digitized or recorded online,” Seattle Betsuin Minister’s Assistant and board member Alex Sakamoto told King5.com. “So, the only records we have are paper copies that were left behind, which were destroyed in the fire.”


Seattle Betsuin board member Marissa Wong told KIRO-TV that she was “really shocked because I couldn’t believe what was happening. And then it kind of started settling in like, ‘Oh, this is practically my second home.’ “


Wong’s mother, Seattle Betsuin Chairperson Leanne Nishi-Wong, said “the air in the temple is heavy with smoke. Employees and volunteers have not been able to access the building or begin the process of determining all that has been damaged or destroyed.”


The temple’s Archives Committee, co-chaired by Dana Nakashima and Andrea Mano, had digitized approximately 1,000 items, but the remaining photos and documents were waiting for funding to complete the job. 


“It is their hope that some of the records can be saved,” Nishi-Wong said. “The process is arduous and expensive. The temple is fortunate to have Densho as a neighbor. The knowledge and expertise shared by them is invaluable.” (Densho is a Seattle nonprofit that documents the experiences of Japanese Americans incarcerated in mass detention camps during World War II.)


The Hondo and Nokotsudo (columbarium) were unscathed from the fire, but a statement from the temple said “we fear they are heavily damaged by smoke and moisture.”


Meanwhile, the Seattle Betsuin is temporarily closed for services, memorials and funerals, and events.


The White River Buddhist Temple and the Tacoma Buddhist Temple have graciously offered to host services, as well as memorials and funerals. Tacoma will host the Dharma School until the Seattle Betsuin reopens. 


“It is truly heartwarming to have such a strong connection with them,” Nishi-Wong said. 


The Nisei Veteran’s Committee (NVC) Memorial Hall has kindly offered the use of their facilities for services, Scouting, Camp Fire and other organizational committees, according to Nishi-Wong. The NVC building is at 1212 South King St., a few blocks from the temple, which is located at 1427 South Main St.


“The history of the Seattle Betsuin and NVC are intertwined, as both organizations have assisted each other during times like this,” she said. 


“The Seattle Betsuin is grateful for the sentiments and well wishes that have been posted, emailed, and verbalized through calls/texts,” the temple said in a statement. “It is comforting to know that so many people care about the Betsuin community. Please know that we deeply appreciate each of you, and that your compassion means a great deal to the temple.


“In light of this unfortunate situation, we see an opportunity for renewal, rebuilding, and reaffirming our mission to share the message of the Buddha,” the Seattle Betsuin continued. “We would like to express our sincere gratitude to the community for the outpouring of support.”


Contributing to this article were the Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Church, King5.com, the website of KING-TV in Seattle, and KIRO-TV in Seattle.


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