SAN JOSE -- Parishioners of San Jose's Greater St. John The Baptist Church surveyed the unfathomable destruction of their storage trailer on Sunday morning, the second strike against their tidy church and the latest in a wave of arson plaguing a modest downtown neighborhood.
"We'll get through this. We'll survive," said one church official, who would not give his name. Congregants of the African-American church at the corner of South 26th and East San Antonio streets, dressed in their Sunday best, gazed at the structure's damage -- repaired by plywood after last Wednesday morning's blaze and now further charred.
The mystery of the 12 blazes since Wednesday, all believed to be arsons, deepens as city officials expand their hunt for the suspect, whose image has been detected by surveillance cameras and an eyewitness.
"Keep your eyes and ears open," San Jose Fire Department Capt. Robert Brown said Sunday morning. "We'll be asking residents to be aware of their surroundings, keep their homes well lit, with motion sensors and smoke detectors -- and if they see anything, call 911."
"The word is getting out," he said. "It's just a matter of time."
Brown went on to assure citizens, "We're talking to witnesses, looking at videos that are believed to be of the suspect in the area, moving around." And further, he said, "The motive is a mystery."
Just blocks from the church, another suspicious fire was reported at 1:55 a.m. Sunday in the first block of South 24th Street. That one damaged a fence and exterior siding of a house but was extinguished by neighbors.
A third fire, just before 7:30 a.m. in the 1300 block of East San Antonio, is thought to be accidental and unrelated to the others.
The fires have burned in the Roosevelt, Little Portugal, Wooster and Five Wounds neighborhoods of San Jose, as well as the eastern parts of the Brookwood Terrace, Naglee Park and Northside neighborhoods.
Just across the railroad tracks from the church, residents of Mobile Home Manor expressed worry about what looks to be a serial arsonist at work, but they felt helpless.
"We didn't know anything, or see anyone," said resident Noelle Bertran.
The San Jose Fire Department has released a sketch of a person of interest. The suspect is described as a white or Latino man, age 25 to 40, at least 6 feet tall and weighing 160 to 180 pounds. Eyewitnesses said he was wearing baggy clothes, large frame glasses and is very thin.
On Sunday, San Jose City Councilman Sam Liccardo distributed fliers, organized a "block watch" and met residents at the corner of Santa Clara and 17th streets. In a posting on his Facebook page, Liccardo said his office is seeking volunteers who are willing to stay awake at night for two-hour shifts and watch by their front window or porch in the neighborhoods that have been targeted.
"They've got to catch him. He's crazy," said a resident of Mobile Home Manor, as he bicycled around the neighborhood.
But he resisted giving his name out of fear, saying, "He might burn my house down."
Contact Lisa M. Krieger at 650-492-4098.