Bystanders stopped a 26-year-old woman from setting fire to the home where Martin Luther King Jr. was born after she poured gasoline on it, authorities said.
Two visitors from Utah interrupted the woman as she was pouring gasoline on the porch and the door of the home, Darin Schierbaum, the Atlanta police chief, told reporters Thursday.
Two off-duty New York City Police Department officers who had been visiting the house then chased her down and detained her until the officers from the Atlanta Police Department arrived, he said.
“That action saved an important part of American history tonight,” he added.
Zach Kempf, 43, a filmmaker from Salt Lake City who was there with his co-worker, said he first thought she was simply watering the shrubs in front of the house. Suddenly, she rushed up the stairs and began yanking on the screen door, trying to get in the house.
“Which just seemed weird,” he said, “so we asked her what she was doing, and she didn’t respond.”
She then dumped the contents of a 5-gallon container onto the porch, threw the empty canister into the bushes and grabbed a lighter that she had left in the grass next to the porch. Kempf blocked her with his body as she tried returning to the porch with the lighter in hand. He called 911.
Kempf said she had a “nervous energy” about her. “But she wasn’t aggressive.” She relented eventually, turned around and quickly walked away, down the street.
“And I yelled at the two guys down the street that she was trying to set the house on fire and to follow her,” he continued.
Those two men, the police officers from New York, restrained her, he said. After local officers arrived, an older man approached, appearing “very distraught,” along with three women. They turned out to be the woman’s father and sisters, who had been looking for her using the location signal from her phone.
Kempf said the relatives described her as a veteran who was experiencing mental distress.
“Obviously, the house is so important, and I’m really glad nothing happened to it,” he said in a phone interview. “But I feel like now I’m mostly just concerned for her well-being.”
The woman was charged with attempted arson and interference with government property, the Atlanta Police Department said in a statement.
“An individual attempted to set fire to this historic property,” the King Center said in a statement. “Fortunately, the attempt was unsuccessful,” it added.
Jerry DeBerry, the Atlanta Fire Department’s battalion chief, said that a hazardous materials team was cleaning up the property and that no damage done had been done.
“If the witnesses hadn’t been here and interrupted what she was doing, it could have been a matter of seconds before the house was engulfed in flames,” he said. “It was really about the timing and the witnesses being in the right place at the right time.”
The two-story Queen Anne-style house, built in 1895, was King’s home for the first 12 years of his life. The house is in Atlanta’s Auburn Avenue Historic District and is a federal landmark.
The interior of the house, which the National Park Service acquired in 2018, has been closed to the public since November for repairs and renovations. Its collection will be stored elsewhere until 2025, when it is expected to reopen, the National Park Service said.
The police, who did not name the suspect, said they were investigating the incident.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.