Fire destroys historical downtown Memphis church, damages 3 other buildings

Friday, October 6th 2006, 8:44 am
By: News On 6

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) _ Fire swept through a historical downtown church early Friday, collapsing its steeple and flicking off embers that ignited three other buildings. Arson was not suspected, a fire official said.

The buildings were unoccupied, and no injuries were immediately reported.

The First United Methodist Church, built in 1893, was largely destroyed by the flames, which were reported shortly before 3 a.m. Its roof caved in, the steeple toppled and some of the walls crumbled onto the streets.

Soon after the fire started at the church, 10 mph wind carried sparks to three nearby buildings, including the Lincoln American Tower, once the tallest building in Memphis at 22 floors.

The buildings were part of a $45 million renovation into condominiums. Owner Will Chandler told WMC-TV that he was worried one couldn't be salvaged, but he said it looked like the tower might be saved.

At least two blocks separated the two fire scenes, but open windows in the buildings under renovation and wooden beams in the two oldest buildings helped feed the flames, said Alvin Benson, a deputy director chief for the fire department.

Crews also had to extinguish small fires in trash bins set by drifting sparks.

``I have no reason to believe it's arson,'' Benson said. The cause remained under investigation.

The Rev. Martha Wagley, pastor of the church, said members of her congregation gathered on the sidewalks as the structure burned, crying, recalling various worship services and telling stories of who was ``married and buried'' there.

Wagley said her church is a ``seven day a week'' church with a food pantry and other ministries to people downtown.

``The building is lost, but not the church,'' Wagley said.

By 8 a.m., firefighters were still hosing down the church and other buildings, and emergency vehicles filled blocked off streets. Arriving workers walked through streets and sidewalks coated in ash. State circuit court, held in a building close to those that caught fire, was canceled for the day, court officials said.