A stubborn fire raged through the steeple and much of the interior of the John Wesley AME Zion Church in Northwest Washington yesterday, turning the congregation's nearly completed $400,000 restoration project into charred rubble.
No one was injured in the two-alarm blaze. But Marion Thomas, the church's architect for the restoration, predicted that a new rehabilitation of the church would cost at least $600,0009
Nonetheless, the church's associate minister, the Rev. James F. Patterson, declared that the 125-year-old church would be rebuilt, saying, "We have to trust in God and just continue to move on."
The loss, according to Thomas Washington, chairman of the church's board of trustees, is covered by insurance.
Patterson said that the church's 4,000 members, many of whom staged raffles, bake and rummage sales, dinners and magazine sales drives to raise $300,000 for the restoration project, "will be with us 100 percent" in the rebuilding effort.
About 100 of the church's members, some of them crying, gathered in a service station across the street from the church at 14th and Corcoran streets NW to share their sadness with one another.
"It's like a death, like a funeral," said Josephine Sherard, a John Wesley member since 1944. "It's unbelievable."
Firemen, manning 17 engine and ladder trucks, fought the blaze for more than two hours, starting shortly after 11:01 a.m., when the first alarm was turned in.
Fire officials said they could not immediately determine the cause of the fire. But they said it started in the church's so-called organ room near the altar, which was actually adjacent to the organ and contained the church's sheet music, communion supplies, a hot plate and a refrigerator.
Battalion Chief Gerald Eckholm said someone may have been cooking on the hotplate just before the fire broke out, but that the cause still was being investigated.
Douglas Rich, a 76-year-old member of the church, discovered the fire as he was setting up tables in the adjoining parish hall for the church's daily lunch for senior citizens.
Rich said he, a church trustee, a bookeeper, a secretary and a janitor were the only ones in the church when the fire was discovered and that they quickly escaped. The church's pastor, Cecil Bishop, was in Miami at the time of the fire attending a church conference.
Eckholm said that initially about 20 firefighters sprayed water on the blaze in the organ room and chancel, but that Fire Chief Jefferson Lewis ordered them out of the church after about 10 minutes after it was determined the steeple overhead was engulfed outside the church.
As part of the recent restoration, a 2,500-pound iron and copper cross costing $3,000 was hoisted atop the steeple of the red brick Gothic-style church. But fire officials feared that the cross, supported only by massive, but rapidly burning 100-year-old wooden beams, might topple into the church, or down the roof into an alley or 14th Street.
Lewis eventually ordered that a crane be brought in to remove the cross. But before it was taken down late yesterday afternoon, a powerful waterjet from a fire hose dislodged the cross from its base. The cross then hung precariously from the top of the steeple, attached only by a single steel cable that architect Thomas said was part of a lightning rod. But the badly charred steeple did not cave in.
Firefighters appeared to have the blaze under control after about 1 1/2 hours, but suddenly the blaze erupted again in the east wing of the cross-shaped church, sending dense billows of yellow-gray smoke into the sky.
When the fire was extinguished, Thomas surveyed the wreckage inside and said it was worse than he feared. The top part of an interior cross had been burned off, paint had blistered throughout the church and burned rubble was strewn about the front of the church. CAPTION: Picture 1, Fire started in a room near the altar, but before firemen could contain the blaze, it spread to the steeple of the 125-year-old church. by Margaret Thomas - The Washington Post; Picture 2, Fireman prepare to fight blaze as it spreads to the steeple of John Wesley AME Zion Church.; Picture 3, no caption