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3-alarm fire heavily damages Oakland's historic First African Methodist Episcopal Church

Leaders and congregation vow they'll recover from Oakland First AME Church fire
Leaders and congregation vow they'll recover from Oakland First AME Church fire 03:19

OAKLAND -- After a 5-hour firefight, flames were finally contained early Monday morning at Oakland's historic First African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Crews responded to reports of a fire at the city's oldest Black church just after midnight and were confront with massive flames roaring out of the historic site upon arrival.

Oakland church fire
Oakland church fire. CBS

The firefighting effort was quickly elevated to three alarms bringing approximately 60 firefighters to the scene near 37th and Telegraph Ave.

The intensity of the blaze forced firefighters to defensively fight the fire from outside using three ladder pipes and crews on the ground to put water onto the roof and interior of the building.

Watching the effort was Pastor Rodney Smith.

"It's just devastating," he told KPIX. "Not only for the parishioners, but for the city. We have served and educated the community longer than anybody. This is going to be a big loss."

Even with flames contained, the fire continued to burn inside the building.

Oakland church fire
Oakland church fire. CBS

"Crews continue to put water on active fire in the upper areas of the church, and look for additional hot spots," Oakland fire tweeted. "Crews contained the fire to the structure of origin."

An investigator was on the scene to determine the cause.

"We don't know why, we don't know who, but it's burning down," Smith said in a video shared on the congregation's Facebook page, adding the church's interior structure had been lost and only the outer walls were still standing. "But I promise you this, we will rise again."  

Our church, the oldest #blackchurch in the East Bay, is on 🔥 but God is STILL good! Stay in prayer 🙏🏾. #TrustingGod #FAMEOakland

Posted by FAME Oakland on Monday, February 20, 2023

Oakland Fire tweeted an update late Monday morning saying that crews remained on scene assessing damage and mitigating hot spots. Firefighters are also working with AME church leaders to determine what can be salvaged from the building as the investigation into what started the fire continues.

Oakland Fire officials said that they have determined where the fire started. 

The church was started in 1858 by a small group of residents. In 1863, they purchased the former schoolhouse which had been constructed by Horace Carpentier. The church moved to its present location at 37th and Telegraph in 1954, and became First African Methodist Episcopal Church.

By Monday morning, the extent of the damage to the historic church was evident. Parishioner Steve Kirkendoll, who has attended services there for 25 years, described it as a "gut punch."

"We all grew up in A.M.E., and so for us not to have a church home because of a fire, it was really hard to hear that this morning."

Late Monday morning, parishioners headed across town to sister church Brookins A.M.E. for prayer, praise and community.

"I felt a deep sense of connectedness; that we were all coming together for a common purpose," said supporter Michelle Milam. "It's really hard to describe it other than to say it felt like we were standing as one."

The church's pastor Rev. Rodney Smith said his faith and belief that his congregation will emerge from the ashes stronger than before is unshakable.

"Right now, we are a church that is grieving and what we really need is prayers," said Rev. Smith.

"We are with you in prayer and support for the rebuilding of this lighthouse in this community," said Bishop Clement Fugh.

The recovery from the fire is likely to be measured in months and years, but longtime parishioner Kirkendoll said he looks forward to the day his beloved church is born anew.

"We'll make it. It's going to take a while because there's a lot of damage. So a lot of stuff has to be built back," said Kirkendoll."But we'll get it back. We'll sing 'hallelujah' when we go back into the building."

Devin Feheley contributed to this story.

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