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Wall heater may be cause for fire at historic South L.A. church

City News Service | 10/9/2013, 11:53 a.m.
Crouch Memorial Church of God in Christ before it was destroyed by fire Tuesday, October 8, 2013.

LOS ANGELES, Calif. — An investigation was underway today into an apparently accidental fire that destroyed a historic church in South Los Angeles and injured three firefighters, including one who was temporarily trapped amid burning debris when sections of the two-story building collapsed.

The major-emergency fire at Crouch Memorial Church of God in Christ at 1001 E. 27th St. started in the attic about 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, and the flames quickly spread through the Romanesque Revival structure.

Firefighters gained the upper hand on the flames within about 90 minutes, then remained on the scene dousing hot spots. The Los Angeles Fire Department declared the fire out at 1:15 p.m.

The cause was under investigation, but Pastor Lawrence McGee said he believes a wall heater he turned on may have started the fire in the wood-framed church, which was completed in 1896. He said he turned it on because rain was in the forecast and a prayer meeting was scheduled for this morning.

The first of 189 firefighters who responded to the blaze encountered flames shooting from the building’s attic, said the LAFD’s Erik Scott.

Crews made an aggressive attack with hose lines, but within 15 minutes, portions of the attic and second floor collapsed, he said.

A firefighter who had been on the second floor rode the falling debris to the first story, where he became trapped and had to use his emergency air canister to breathe, Scott said.

“I got fire all around me... I got fire all around me,” he declared over his radio, Scott said.

A Rapid Intervention Company was deployed to save the trapped fireman, who was located and taken out through the building’s front door, he said.

Firefighters then assumed a defensive posture, fighting the blaze from outside the building, Scott said.

Three firefighters were evaluated for injuries. The one who had been trapped was taken to a hospital, where he remained overnight; he was expected to be released today, Scott said.

A second firefighter was also taken to a hospital to be evaluated but did not require treatment, he said.

A third firefighter who suffered a possible electric shock while on an aerial ladder truck was taken to a hospital, where he was treated and released, Scott said.

The church was the center of Los Angeles’ prohibition movement in the early 1900s. It sits in the heart of a historic district that includes a variety of homes dating back as far as 1893.

Fire Chief Brian Cummings said nobody was believed to have been inside the building when the fire broke out. The department’s arson unit was called to the scene, along with the House of Worship Task Force, which includes investigators from the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.