MILWAUKEE -- Local, state and federal agencies were on the scene near 12th and Vliet Thursday, June 21st after a five-alarm fire destroyed a 120-year-old building containing a neighborhood "Food Castle" grocery store Wednesday morning. The official cause of the fire remains under investigation. As it turns out, the five-alarm fire near downtown Milwaukee has been linked with a garage fire in Oak Creek just hours later.
Abraham Silmi owns the "Food Castle" store, and told FOX6 News a worker discovered the back of the building on fire around 7:45 Wednesday morning.
"I ran around the back to see if there was anybody else in the store. There was a low shelf and I banged my head, and then I ran out of the store. It got out of control real fast," Silmi said.
Records list Jamil Sarsour of Franklin as the owner of the property, and several other properties along Vliet.
On Wednesday, Jamil Sarsour was speaking with investigators near the Vliet Street fire scene when he received a call alerting him that his brother's home was also on fire. Oak Creek firefighters responded to a fire at the home of Sarsour's brother, Imad -- who also owns properties on Vliet.
Neither Sarsour brother could be reached for comment on Thursday. However, another brother, Salah Sarsour told FOX6 News the two fires were just coincidence. Sarsour released a statement to FOX6 News, saying:
"Our family is absolutely certain that the two fires in properties owned by my two brothers was absolutely coincidental. There is no reason for us to believe that the fires were anything other than accidental or electrical in origin. We do not suspect anyone of setting the fires or targeting our family.
Most importantly, we thank God that no one was hurt in either fire and that no firefighters were seriously injured in putting out the fires. We wish to thank those from the fire and police departments who have assisting us in dealing with these unfortunate incidents."
Jamil Sarsour, the Vliet Street building's owner, was convicted by an Israeli military court in 1998 of giving the pro-Palestinian group Hamas tens of thousands of dollars. Sarsour spent four years in prison.
Sarsour was also charged in federal court in Milwaukee in 1998 with avoiding reporting requirements in several cash transactions. Sarsour pleaded guilty to those charges in 2004.
Jamil's brother, Salah told FOX6 News the issues linking his brother to terrorist group is in the past, and has no bearing on Wednesday's fire.
Neither the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives or the Wisconsin Fire Marshals Office would comment on the house fire in Oak Creek, or Jamil's history with Hamas.
FOX6 News spoke with Othman Atta, the executive director of the Islamic Society of Milwaukee who said he is friends with Jamil Sarsour and Imad Sarsour.
"Obviously it was a very difficult day for them yesterday. Some people could certainly say, well, this is a little strange that two brothers had properties (on fire) the same day, and absolutely, we found it to be very, very unusual," Atta said.
Speaking about Jamil's past with Hamas, Atta told FOX6 News he believes Jamil was falsely convicted, and that Jamil's past isn't related to Wednesday's fires.
"He was tortured while he was there. They got him to sign something in a language he didn`t understand, and it was under severe coercion. He`s finally getting over all of this and he`s moved on with his life and I think it`s just unfair for something like that to be brought forth again," Atta said.
While the Sarsour family does not believe the two fires are anything more than a coincidence, they do want the fires investigated, and if it is uncovered that the fires were intentional, Atta believes they'd want someone prosecuted.
Monitor FOX6 News and FOX6Now.com for updates on this developing story.