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St. Petersburg church fire ruled arson

ST. PETERSBURG — A fire erupted inside a church Friday morning, destroying the sanctuary and scorching white stucco walls.

It was arson, investigators say.

About 60 firefighters worked to put out the fire at Stewart-Isom Memorial CME Church, 1820 Walton St. S, (map below)at 5:50 a.m.

A passerby called 911 after seeing heavy smoke. It was extinguished within an hour, said Lt. Joel Granata, St. Petersburg Fire & Rescue spokesman.

The sanctuary was a total loss.

No further details on the arson investigation were released.

The doors were locked when fire crews arrived. Firefighters busted some of the long, vertical stained-glass windows so they could fight the fire safely while pews burned, he said.

The cause is still undetermined.

About 50 members, mostly elderly, comprise the church congregation. A Bible study group huddled inside a classroom the night before the fire, but no one was inside before dawn Friday. No one was injured.

The 8,000-square-foot church got a new pastor last week when outgoing pastor Marvin Charles Lue Jr. left to take a promotion in Miami. Lue, who was in St. Petersburg packing his things, got a call from a friend Friday morning.

"Stunned," he said. "I jumped up out of bed."

Mayor Bill Foster arrived at the church in a blue St. Petersburg Fire & Rescue T-shirt. Former mayoral candidate Deveron Gibbons showed up, too.

Oguan Byrd, 42, a receptionist who lives near the church, planned to leave on vacation Friday. With all the chaos at the church near her home, she wasn't sure if she should go.

"My alarm clock went off and I smelled smoke," she said. "I thought it was my home."

Woodrow Butler, 21, was shaken from sleep by a cousin. He ran outside and saw the flames.

"It was just lit up inside," he said of the church.

The church had no plans for construction this year. Leaders were focused on growing membership and filling the walls of the 25-year-old building.

On his last day at the church, Lue spoke to the congregation about coming together during hard times.

"Our message was, we can, we shall and we will," he said outside the burned building Friday. "That's going to be put to the test because of a situation like this."

Note: An earlier version of this story included the wrong street name.

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St. Petersburg church fire ruled arson 07/23/10 [Last modified: Friday, July 23, 2010 1:55pm]
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