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Good Samaritans saved Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth home in Atlanta from being burned to the ground, officials say

Good Samaritans helped thwart a woman’s attempt to set a fire at the birth home of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Atlanta, police said.

Police were called to the historic home in the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood around 5:45 p.m. Thursday on a vandalism report, the Atlanta Police Department said in a statement. When officers arrived, they found multiple people had stopped the 26-year-old after she poured gasoline on the property, the statement said.

The woman, who CNN has not identified, is a US Navy veteran, according to Navy spokesperson CDR Andrew Bertucci. She served for 4 years before leaving in 2020.

She was arrested and charged with attempted arson and interference with government property, Atlanta police said. She’s being held at the Fulton County Jail.

“It was a little scary there for a minute because we didn’t know who she was, we didn’t know if she had weapons on her, we didn’t know anything,” Zach Kempf told CNN affiliate WSB of seeing the woman throwing gas on the home.

Kempf, who was visiting the area from Utah, stepped in to block the woman after she picked up a lighter, he said.

Two off-duty officers visiting from New York then helped restrain the woman until police arrived, WSB reported. The APD originally said the officers were off-duty, but the New York Police Department said Saturday the two men are retired.

The bystander intervention likely saved the home from being burned to the ground, Atlanta Fire Department Battalion Chief Jerry DeBerry told WSB.

“It could have been a matter of seconds before the house was engulfed in flames,” DeBerry told the news outlet.

There doesn’t appear to be any permanent damage to the home, the National Park Service told CNN Friday.

There is still a strong gasoline odor that needs to be aired out, Ash Phillips, a historical architect with the National Park Service, told CNN. Crews are working to keep any potential sparks away from the home, Phillips said, calling it an “irreplaceable resource.”

The King Center, a nonprofit founded by King’s wife, released a statement thanking bystander and police efforts.

“Fortunately the attempt was unsuccessful thanks to the brave intervention of good Samaritans and the quick response of law enforcement,” the statement said. “Our prayers are with the individual who allegedly committed this criminal act.”

King’s birth home is a popular historical site that offers tours of where King was born and lived the first 12 years of his life, according to the National Park Service, though tours were recently suspended through November 2025 for rehabilitation work.

King’s parents moved into the home in 1926 when they got married, according to the National Park Service. Years later, the Kings moved to another Atlanta home. After King was assassinated in 1968, restoration work on the house began so that it could become a historic museum.

This story has been updated with additional information.

CNN’s Isabel Rosales and Maxime Tamsett contributed to this report.

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