The Tampa Bay Tribune reports…
“A fire that gutted the New Salem Missionary Baptist Church early Monday morning does not appear to be suspicious, fire officials say. The blaze started between a drop ceiling and beams of a third floor in the northeast side of the building, a place where electrical connections typically are found.
The conclusions are preliminary, said Tampa Fire Rescue spokesman Jason Penny and could change upon further examination of the evidence.
“The fire is still currently under investigation,” he said.
But at this point, he said, “based on what we’ve seen now, it appears not to be suspicious. The fire marshal will release the final determination once the investigation is complete.”
The news had yet to reach the church members Tuesday morning.
The leaders and laity of the church chatted quietly in the parking lot of the charred and gutted building, occasionally gazing up at the collapsed roof, the busted stained glass windows, the four burned — but still alive — palm trees that line the south side of the building.
They talked about the past, how the church was built 65 years ago in the African-American community known as Dobyville, which stretched along Oregon Avenue from Cass Street to Swann Avenue; how the church was the centerpiece of the community from the 1950s and 1960s and into the latter parts of the century, even as the community of Hyde Park became gentrified.
They talked about the future, with a consensus that was clouded by uncertainty.
“I grew up in this church,” said the Rev. George Martin, a 64-year-old assistant pastor. “I was baptized here when I was 10. “I was licensed and ordained in this church in 1985.
“This is my church.”
The fire ripped through the old church at 405 N. Oregon Ave, during the predawn hours Monday. About 45 Tampa Fire Rescue firefighters responded but couldn’t get inside to battle the blaze because of the searing heat. They adopted a defensive posture and dumped water from three ladder trucks onto the roof, where flames were shooting through, reaching heights of about 30 feet above the towering structure. Within 15 minutes of the firefighters’ arrival, the roof collapsed.
The church’s pastor is Henry Lyons, a preacher who was involved in a scandal at a different church in the 1990s. He was convicted of stealing money to pay for his lavish lifestyle, which included a $700,000 waterfront home in Tierra Verde and a Rolls Royce. He served about five years in prison and emerged in 2005 as pastor of the New Salem Missionary Baptist Church.
Plans to expand a few years ago were dashed when a loan used to buy acreage near U.S. 301 and Interstate 4 was foreclosed upon and the church sought protection under Chapter 11 of the federal bankruptcy code.
Now, the church only owns property on which the church sits and several parcels nearby, one of which will be used as a temporary sanctuary.
The small building only holds about 75 people, said Martin, so more services will be held on Sundays to accommodate the 450 or so members.
“It’s going to be cramped,” Martin said. “But we are moving forward.”
The church is insured. Damage was estimated to be about $400,000.
Fire investigators said the structure is insured by GuideOne Insurance, which, according to the company’s website, is one of the nation’s leading church insurers, covering nearly 43,000 churches across the United States.
Church leaders were waiting for an adjuster on Tuesday. Fire marshals from the city and state assisted in the probe along with agents with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Beyond holding Sunday services and Wednesday Bible study in a tiny building adjacent to the church, leaders are looking for a larger place to hold Sunday services, somewhere in the neighborhood, for at least a few months, said the Rev. Robert Carpenter II, assistant minister at New Salem.
And beyond that, he said, no one knows.
“It’s too early as of right now,” he said. The grand old church will be torn down, he said. Whether a new one will be built on the same spot is uncertain.
John Billups is a deacon at the church and is part of a family who has been church leaders for generations.
“My uncle’s name is on the cornerstone,” the 71-year-old Tampa man said Tuesday morning. “I’m a life-long member.”
He recalled when the church was built, how it was the anchor of the African-American community that stretched across this part of Tampa.
He glanced up at the heavily damaged building.
“It was the centerpiece,” he said.”