Fire Heavily Damages Florida Church Led by Controversial Pastor Henry Lyons

Fire at Tampa church

The New Salem Missionary Baptist Church, led by embattled Pastor Henry J. Lyons, was heavily damaged by a fire that began before dawn Monday.

No one was injured, but the roof and virtually the entire interior of the church was destroyed; damage was estimated at $400,000.

The church building had stood in North Hyde Park for nearly 65 years. Church members milled about Monday morning as Tampa Fire Rescue firefighters stood by, occasionally hoisting an extended ladder over the smoldering building, dumping water onto spots that flared up. Some congregation members wept and hugged each other.

The church, organized in 1906 and at its current location since 1950, had recently been in financial trouble and was placed under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2012, though it has since emerged from bankruptcy.

The church was for sale but still was home to some 450 members in this neighborhood just west of the University of Tampa.

The 4,700-square-foot brick church building at 405 N. Oregon Ave., and some adjoining lots were placed on the market for $1.8 million in November, according to the website of AKA Commercial Realty, which is listing the property.

Tampa firefighters got a 911 call at 6:30 a.m., a half-hour before the day-care in the building was to open, said fire-rescue spokesman Jason Penny. When firefighters arrived, flames already were breaching the shingled roof, rising about 30 feet above the structure.

The first arriving firefighters immediately called out a second alarm, Penny said, “ because of the flames and the age of the building.”

Flames could be seen on Interstate 275, a dozen blocks to the north, Penny said.

The second alarm doubled the units responding. In all, about 45 firefighters were at the location on the corner of Oregon Avenue and Fig Street, considered the north part of Hyde Park.

Because of the intensity of the heat, firefighters didn’t go inside, Penny said, Rather, they pumped water onto the fire from three ladder trucks.

“The hardest part was not being able to get in to fight the fire because of how severe it was,” Penny said. “We didn’t want to send any firefighters in. It was too dangerous.”

Within 15 minutes after their arrival, the roof collapsed, he said.

Fire investigators from Tampa, the state and the federal government were just beginning to get inside the smoking structure by mid afternoon in an attempt to determine the cause of the fire. Agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were on hand because the agency investigates whenever a house of worship is damaged, Penny said.

Rev. Robert Carpenter II, assistant minister at the church, said he received a call from a church member early Monday to tell him that the church was on fire. He turned on the television news, wiped his eyes to wake up and watched the news. He thought he was having a nightmare, he said.

“To wake up this morning and see that is just breathtaking,” Carpenter said. “It’s sad. There are so many families that are connected here.”

The day before the fire, the church had two successful services that included baptisms, Carpenter said.

Carpenter said he doesn’t think the fire was a hate crime. He said the church hadn’t gotten any threats.

“I think it’s just an accident,” Carpenter said. “With wear and tear on the building, anything can happen.”

As firefighters Monday afternoon began rolling up hoses that stretched two blocks from the church south, the fire alarm and strobe light on the south side of the building continued to blast warnings.

Tiffany Capers, 27, heard about the fire before she brought her 8-year-old daughter to the day-care center inside the church.

“I’m hurt,” she said. “This is my second home. The people here are like family to me.”

Tampa City Councilman Frank Reddick, whose district includes the church, said the city “has lost a very valuable asset to the community.’’

“New Salem has been a historic place for many, many years,’’ Reddick said. “Some of our most prominent African Americans have attended that house of worship.’’

The councilman said he got a call early Monday morning and drove to the church.

“I was shocked,” he said. “I was hoping no one in the church was hurt. We knew immediately the historical nature of that church and that’s what bothered me the most.”

Reddick said he spoke with Lyons at the scene.

“I shared my thoughts that I hoped the leadership would rebuild on that spot,” Reddick said.

“I assured him (Lyons) that I would be willing to assist in any capacity I could to help with the rebuilding,” Reddick said.

Lyons, who could not be reached for comment Monday, thanked Reddick for the offer. Reddick said, though, that the pastor did not say he planned to rebuild on the site.

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Keith Morelli

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