Video: Memphis burning

updated 10/6/2006 11:30:01 AM ET 2006-10-06T15:30:01

Fire swept through a historic downtown church in Memphis early Friday, collapsing its steeple and flicking off embers that set fire to three other buildings, one of them 22 stories tall.

The First United Methodist Church, built in 1893, was largely destroyed by the flames. Its roof caved in, the steeple toppled and some of the walls crumbled onto the streets.

"Certainly it's an old, historic building — we love that piece of property, it's some beautiful architecture — but the fire was coming through the roof," the Fire Department's deputy director Chief Alvin Benson said.

The buildings were all unoccupied, and no injuries were immediately reported. The cause of the church fire was under investigation.

"I have no reason to believe it's arson," Benson said.

Soon after the church's fire alarm sounded at 2:39 a.m., 10 mph winds carried sparks from the fire south to three nearby buildings, including the Lincoln American Tower, once the tallest building in Memphis.

$45 million renovation
The buildings were part of a $45 million renovation into condominiums. Owner Will Chandler told a local television station that he was worried one could not be salvaged, but he said it looked like the tower might be saved.

There were at least two blocks between the two fire scenes, but open windows in the buildings under renovation and wooden beams in the two oldest buildings helped feed the flames, Benson said.

Benson said federal investigators were helping to determine the cause of the fire, a routine procedure when a church burns.

The Rev. Martha Wagley, pastor of the church, said members of her congregation gathered on the sidewalks as the building burned, crying and hugging and telling stories of who was "married and buried" in the building and things that had happened in worship services.

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.

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