TAMPA — As investigators tried to determine what caused the Rev. Forrest Pollock's plane to smash into the side of a North Carolina mountain, members of his church tried to find meaning in his death and the loss of his son.
Wednesday evening they gathered in the brand-new, 3,450-seat sanctuary at Bell Shoals Baptist to pray and grieve.
"Why did this happen? It's been asked as long as there have been human beings walking on the Earth," said Associate Pastor George Thomasson, as he prepared to lead the prayer service. "Ultimately you have to go back to the very foundation. … What looks to us as a tragedy, from God's perspective fits in his plan."
Pollock, 44, and his 13-year-old son, Preston, were killed when his plane went down on Monday in the Shining Rock Wilderness area, on Cold Mountain in Pisgah National Forest, a four-hour hike from the nearest road.
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board are searching for clues about how the plane broke apart, spokesman Peter Knudson said.
A complete investigation will take about a year, Knudson said.
Pollock got his civilian pilot's license in 1995, and in January had logged 560 flying hours.
The day Pollock's plane crashed, wind gusts in the area had been measured at up to 60 mph.
"Airplanes fly in high winds all the time," said Les Dorr of the Federal Aviation Administration. "It's a question of, did the airplane run into some kind of turbulence, or for whatever reason did winds blow it off course or the pilot got into an area where he was not sure where he was."
At Bell Shoals Baptist Church, senior pastors tried to work out the details of transporting the bodies of Pollock and his son back to Florida, even as they arranged for that night's prayer service.
Thomasson said he would lead worship services at the church for the time being, following the program of special events Pollock had planned to draw new members to the burgeoning mega-church.
The church was already large, and known for political activism, when Pollock came aboard in 2002, Thomasson said.
But Pollock's energy and drive helped to expand its scope, both in size and national profile.
Pollock called on his flock to "dig deep" to finance the $24-million sanctuary, Thomasson said. The sanctuary was opened in April; Pollock preached just three Sunday sermons in it.
Pollock was also unabashedly political, and reached out to other leaders in the conservative Christian movement nationwide.
It was largely his influence that brought a slate of A-list conservative speakers to a conference at the church in the fall. He was one of only a handful of pastors tapped to preach at the upcoming Southern Baptist Convention's annual conference.
"If he had a concern that could be addressed through networking with other leaders, he had a pool of other leaders (to call upon)," Thomasson said.
But Pollock never sought to overshadow his church. And community members say it will survive his untimely passing.
"It's devastating, and no one's going to get over it real quick," said Mark Saunders, pastor of the neighboring Baylife Church. "But Forrest would have told you, the church was never meant to be built around him. It was always meant to be built around God."
Times staff writer Jan Wesner and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. S.I. Rosenbaum can
be reached at (813) 661-2442.