OAKLAND -- A three-alarm fire ripped through a West Oakland church Monday, burning for nearly an hour, torching what had been home to a congregation for more than four decades, according to fire and church officials.
The blaze erupted around 2:50 p.m. at Zion First Church of God in Christ in the 1400 block of Eighth Street. The first firefighters at the scene found thick smoke and flames and within minutes called for a second alarm. They called for a third alarm as the fire grew out of control, engulfing the building by 3 p.m. Flames could be seen shooting 10 feet above the church's tower.
At one point, firefighters were ordered to back away from the front of the church, apparently out of concern that it could collapse.
Crews extinguished the flames about 3:45 p.m. Some 70 firefighters were called to battle the blaze, Oakland fire Battalion Chief Lisa Baker said.
No one was inside the church at the time, and no one was injured. The cause remains under investigation, though arson is not suspected. The fire caused an estimated $900,000 in damage, Baker said.
The church was erected in the 1970s, but the congregation long predates the building, church officials said. The church, believed to be Oakland's first Church of God in Christ congregation, celebrated its 97th anniversary in August, they said.
What started in a tent and then moved to a house blossomed into a chapel built by church members in the 70s, said Pauline Williams, wife of Pastor Rickie Williams. Its members have included former Congressman and Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums, a West Oakland native, who attended the church's Sunday school, church leaders said.
"The community has always known this church as a sanctuary for them," Pauline Williams said. "Our member here were the carpenters, the plumbers; they built this church."
The church is known for the twice-monthly food distribution in its West Oakland neighborhood and takes pride in its choir and musical worship, said Bishop J.E. Watkins, pastor of the Jack London Square Chapel, a sister church in West Oakland.
"It's going to be a total loss," Watkins said. "Probably the organ is gone, the pianos are gone, the drums and everything else."
Pews and much of the interior was destroyed. Most feared, he said, is that the church's historical records dating back 90 years were also destroyed.
But Pastor Rickie Williams, the church's third pastor in a history that dates back to 1916, said he hopes they can restore the sanctuary because the structure seems intact.
"We just got through celebrating 97 years," said Maude Moore, 87, chairwoman of the board of trustees and a member since the 1960s.
A tearful Moore leaned her head on a gateway after glimpsing the damage inside. She said she hopes to return soon to a restored church "wherever it's built, whenever we get it built."
Staff writer Harry Harris contributed to this report.