A fire destroyed a 136-year-old church Saturday night.
The Brooklyn Fire Department received a call that First Corinthian Missionary Baptist Church, at the corner of Madison and South 3rd streets, was burning at 10:30 p.m. Safety Officer Milton Dixon said firefighters arrived about 10:45 p.m. and left the scene at 3 a.m. Sunday.
Dixon said about a dozen fire departments responded to put out the flames, including State Park Place, Fairmont City, Cahokia, Venice and Midway in East St. Louis.
The church, which is surrounded by strip clubs, had been abandoned for more than two decades, Dixon said. Some people had been living in the basement at times, but no one was there when the fire occurred, he said.
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Dixon didn’t know what caused the fire, but he said that the fire marshal will assess the property on Monday to try to determine a cause.
Dixon said that the church’s old shingles and tar roof had made the fire a little difficult to put out, and there had been a couple of flashovers — rapidly spreading fire — and a backdraft, when the fire is exposed to sudden burst of oxygen.
Late Sunday morning, the Brooklyn Fire Department was back at the church and spraying the smoldering remains near a pool of water on the street corner.
Erica James, who lives one block south of First Corinthian on 3rd Street, said she saw the church catch fire. At first, she said, it was just smoking, but between 11 and 11:30 p.m., as the fire grew out the top of the red brick building, some people were worried the fire would spread and left the strip clubs for the street.
The fire “felt like 1,000 degrees,” James said.
A video she took shows the fire stretching toward Bottoms Up, a pink and purple cinderblock establishment. She described a chaotic scene as people evacuated the building, with distracted patrons tripping in an unexpected ditch near the road and women grabbing their beauty supplies and wondering whether they would lose their jobs.
Contrary to what Dixon said about homeless tenants at First Corinthian, James said that she knows a woman who had been occupying the building recently. The woman had a generator that could have started the fire, James suggested. She said that firefighters had to rescue the woman, but that development could not be confirmed by press time.
Fire crews had cordoned off the streets for a block surrounding the church, but they were reopened in the early afternoon. Every so often, someone in a car would slow down and drive by the scene. One of them was Les Bennett, of Brooklyn.
“I figured I would drive by and take a look,” he said.
He said a neighbor had called him at 1 a.m. to say there was a fire in town. Fifteen minutes later, the neighbor called back and confirmed it was at First Corinthian.
Bennett was sad. First Corinthian had been his family’s old church, he said, and even though he hadn’t been there in years, he had grown up in the church and attended it until he was 30. Around then, however, it needed repairs that members couldn’t afford, their pastor retired, and everyone left to worship elsewhere.
Bennett, who now attends Transforming Word Church four blocks away, took a picture of the front of First Corinthian and sent it to his sister, who lives in Montgomery, Alabama. He drove away.
Around 1:30 p.m., police tape was still wrapped around electric poles at either end of one block of 3rd Street, closing traffic to Ms. Angie’s Kitchen, a neighborhood soul food restaurant across the street from Bottoms Up.
Angie Garrett, who owns the restaurant, said she worried about where the after-church crowd would park, but a little later, all the old faces started coming through the door.