Officials say Fire that Gutted Henry Lyons’ Church Is Not Suspicious

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A fire that destroyed a historic African-American church this week was accidental, Tampa fire officials said Tuesday.

An unspecified mechanical issue is thought to have sparked the blaze at New Salem Missionary Baptist Church, according to Tampa Fire Rescue. The exact cause of the fire was still being investigated.

A preliminary investigative report concluded that the fire started in a space between the second and third floors on the northeast corner of the building, fire officials said.

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives led the initial investigation of the blaze, which is standard whenever a fire occurs in a house of worship. Once the cause was deemed not suspicious, the investigation was turned over to the Tampa fire marshal.

The fire generated renewed public attention toward the Rev. Henry Lyons, the once-disgraced pastor who has led the New Salem congregation in recent years. Lyons was sentenced in 1999 to 5 ½ years for misappropriating more than $4 million from the National Baptist Convention when he served as its president. But since his release from prison in 2003, he has managed to re-establish himself as a spiritual leader in the Tampa Bay area.

New Salem Missionary Baptist Church, begun in 1906, is one of the first African-American churches in West Tampa. Members have worshiped at the N Oregon Avenue building since 1950.

A church deacon arrived about 6:30 a.m. Monday and found smoke coming from the two-story building at 405 N Oregon Ave., a few blocks west of the University of Tampa. An off-duty firefighter and two men at a nearby business also spotted the smoke and called 911.

When firefighters arrived, flames were shooting 30 feet through the roof of the red-brick building. Within minutes, the roof collapsed.

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Source: TBO.com | Dan Sullivan

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