Investigators working to determine what caused fire at Knoxville church

1:09 PM, Dec 7, 2010   |    comments
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Knoxville firefighters spent much of the night at the scene of fire that nearly destroyed a church.

Investigators from the Knoxville Fire Department and the ATF will be on scene Tuesday, working to determine what started the blaze at Mt. Calvary Baptist Church.  Church members are also deciding what to do about future services.

10News will have more on that story throughout the day on WBIR.com and on Tuesday's 10News at 5.

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Knoxville firefighters have supressed most of the flames in a fire at Mt. Calvary Baptist church in the 1800 block of Dandridge Avenue in East Knoxville.

Fire officials say Monday night's fire is the largest one they have seen since the McClung Warehouses fire in 2007.

According to D.J. Corcoran of the Knoxville Fire Department, the fire started close to 4:45 p.m.

Eight people were working inside the kitchen area of the building when they smelled smoke. After walking from the east side of the building to the west side of the building they opened the door to the sanctuary and found fire and lots of smoke, firefighters said. They were all able to exit the building safely and call 9-1-1.

Church administrator Hildrith Gillespie was one of the people who made it out of the fire. She watched the church burn from her car after she discovered it. "We went and looked and we started smelling smoke and I called 9-11," said Gillespie.

Flames and what looked to be a "ball of fire" broke through the roof of the church. Once firefighters arrived, they found smoke coming from every window, door and overhang.

Crews started to attack the flames from the roof after pausing due to heavy smoke in the area. Since the smoke was so thick, the conditions could have led to a back draft which is caused if the smoke hits the air.

"A lot of times firemen will gauge smoke if it smells electrical, if it smells rubber...this smelled like a little bit of foam, so it might have been some of the pews some of the carpeting, some of the toxic black smoke that were coming out of there," explained Corcoran. 

Crews had to cut a hole in the roof of the church to allow some of the smoke to leave the building before they were able to fight the fire.

Firefighters then also focused on protecting the part of the building that was not on fire.  

Firefighters worked to salvage part of the building, but most of it is a total loss including the sanctuary roof. The cause of the blaze is still under investigation. 

Officials have arrested one person for driving through the barricade and being intoxicated.

Church leaders and members of the congregation say they won't let this fire break them. "As the pastor always told us, this is our meeting place. The church are the people who attend here," explained Deacon William James.

Pastor Leroy Franklin said he is glad everyone got out of the building safely. "This is just where the church meets and we will continue to meet somewhere," said Franklin.

Franklin is relying on faith and the Christmas season to get his church through. "This is the time of the year when we are renewed that despite what else is going on in the world we still see what God can do with us and that's a good thing,"explained Franklin.

The church is known for hosting various cultural events throughout the year including a Kwanza celebration 10News covered in 2008.

According to the church's website, the church was established in 1913. The church added on to the existing building in 2005.

The church was set to hold a  Christmas Concert on Sunday December 12.

The church is also the site of an adult day care program through the Alzheimer's Association called the Howard Circle of Friends. The program provides seniors with memory loss a safe place to stay five days a week.

The Association said some clients would typically still be in the church at the time of the fire, but on Monday all had left the building by 3:45 p.m.

The center will be closed for the rest of the week. If you have questions you can call 544-6288 or visit their website.

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