BRANDON — The call came Monday night: Pastor's plane is missing.
Beth McCrary put down the phone. "I'm going to church," she told her son. "I don't know if the doors will be open. I'll pray on the steps."
In the brand new, 3,450-seat sanctuary where the Rev. Forrest Pollock, 44, had preached only three sermons, McCrary huddled with about 100 other members of Bell Shoals Baptist Church. Praying.
It was Tuesday morning when they finally knew: Pollock and his son were dead.
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On Monday morning, Pollock lifted his single-engine Piper from the runway at Rutherford County Airport in western North Carolina. His son, Preston, 13, sat with him in the cockpit.
Pollock, an experienced pilot, had gone to North Carolina to see his mother, said the Rev. George Thomasson, an associate pastor at Bell Shoals. He planned to swing by Arkansas to pick up a friend before heading to a conference of Christian leaders in Texas.
It was 5 a.m., still dark, and windy. The National Weather Service had issued a high-wind warning for the Asheville area hours before, and there were reports of trees snapping in half in gusts up to 60 mph.
That early, the airport was empty of staff. Airport manager Greg Turner said later he would have told Pollock not to take off.
"We all wish we could have been here to talk him out of it," Turner said.
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Forrest Pollock's smile beamed from the big screen at the Brandon theater, advertising his church.
He was an unabashed pitchman for his faith. "God's in management, I'm in sales," he said once.
Pollock came to Bell Shoals Baptist Church in 2002, replacing an outgoing pastor who had resigned over an extramarital affair.
He arrived at the burgeoning megachurch from a smaller Louisiana congregation, but he was undaunted by the size of his new flock.
Under his leadership, the church grew even more, opening a $24-million sanctuary in April to hold its nearly 6,000-strong congregation.
"He just wanted to let the Lord use him," said church member Terry Kemple. "He was enjoying himself, enjoying doing what he was doing."
Pollock also reached out politically. His church became a local powerhouse in conservative politics, organizing protests, petition drives and political debates, and hosting a summit of A-list national conservative leaders last fall.
When gay rights activists came to picket the summit, Pollock met them on the church lawn.
"Judge not lest ye be judged," he told them.
"He was kind and gentle even as he disagreed," said state Sen. Ronda Storms of Valrico, a friend and political ally. "And he disagreed with a smile … even if the smile was a little fierce."
When he preached, he held a microphone in one hand, bounding across the stage.
The last sermon he preached was on Sunday, Mother's Day.
He talked about how he made sure he told each of his six children how much he loved them, every day.
If anything happened to him, he said, he wanted to make sure they knew.
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When a teacher asked Preston Pollock what his favorite activity was, he had an answer: flying with his father.
"He was a joyful young man," recalled Jennifer Lime, who taught Preston at Bell Shoals Baptist Academy before he started home school in sixth grade.
Audra Russell, 12, a former classmate of Preston's, said he was a well-liked "class clown."
"I'm going to miss him. He was pretty funny," Audra said. "At least he's with his father."
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As Monday night gave way to Tuesday morning, about a half-dozen people still knelt in prayer.
Updates on the search for Pollock's plane flashed on the sanctuary's two giant screens.
Shortly before 11 a.m., the screens went blank. Ten minutes later, Thomasson, the associate pastor, came to the pulpit.
Pilots from the Civil Air Patrol had spotted Pollock's plane on the side of Cold Mountain in North Carolina. Searchers on foot had reached the crash site. Father and son were both dead.
"All of our hearts are broken," he said, flanked on stage by a dozen church members, including Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee.
Cries erupted from those at the church.
Federal authorities and the National Transportation Safety Board are still trying to determine the exact cause of the crash.
By afternoon, members drifted in and out of the church lobby, many of them dazed or red-eyed.
The Rev. Jay Strike, an associate pastor, said the church leaders weren't sure what they would do now.
They would have to pray on it, he said.
Times staff writers Jan Wesner, Andrew Meacham and Phuong Nguyen and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. S.I. Rosenbaum can be reached at 661-2442 or [email protected]