TAMPA — Investigators are trying to determine what sparked a fire Monday that gutted a historic Tampa church led by the Rev. Henry Lyons, a once-prominent bay area pastor who rebuilt his career there following a four-year prison stint.
A deacon at the New Salem Missionary Baptist Church arrived about 6:30 a.m. and found smoke coming from the two-story building at 405 N Oregon Ave., a few blocks west of the University of Tampa. After a call to 911, firefighters arrived to find flames shooting 30 feet through the roof.
Minutes later, the roof collapsed. The fire's intensity kept crews outside. Trucks sent ladders over the roof to dump water.
"We're devastated," Lyons said. "It's just like losing a child. … I've been crying all morning."
A task force that includes agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is investigating. Federal involvement is standard when there is a fire at a house of worship, Tampa fire officials said. Damage to the structure and contents is estimated at $400,000, the fire marshal said.
The investigation was initially hampered by uncertainty over the building's structural integrity. Investigators were unable to get inside until late in the day, after firefighters knocked down an exterior brick wall.
Lyons has led the New Salem congregation since 2004, following his release from prison the previous year. He was sentenced in 1999 to 5 1/2 years for misappropriating more than $4 million from the National Baptist Convention when he served as president of the organization.
The scandal broke when Lyons' then-wife, Deborah, set fire to a Tierra Verde house after she learned her husband had purchased the home for another woman.
But Lyons appeared to have recovered from that period, re-establishing himself as a local spiritual leader. He has been called on to give the invocation at a Tampa City Council meeting.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn visited the fire scene Monday morning and met briefly with Lyons. The scent of soot hung in the air as water from fire hoses flooded the streets.
"I've spent many a Sunday in that church," Buckhorn said. "This church has been a fixture in the West Tampa community for a long, long time."
New Salem Missionary Baptist Church started in 1906, one of the first African-American churches in West Tampa. Members have worshiped at the N Oregon Avenue building since 1950.
In recent years, the church has grappled with financial problems.
Records show New Salem filed for bankruptcy in July 2012, citing $1.24 million in debt. The largest portion of that debt was a $1.1 million loan from Fifth Third Bank.
The church received a judge's permission to dismiss the bankruptcy in March 2013. An attorney for the church said New Salem had "worked out a compromise'' with the bank, federal documents show.
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The church building served as collateral for what was left of the bank loan, roughly $467,000, according to county records. Lyons said the congregation has been trying to sell the church building and relocate.
The church obtained the loan in June 2007 to pay for 43 acres off Sligh Avenue near Interstate 4. That land had room for a large campus, including ball fields, which church members thought could help attract young families. To secure the loan, the church put up its historic worship hall, the parsonage and nearby parcels on Oregon Avenue as collateral.
But New Salem fell into the same predicament as many other churches when the economy tanked, a former deacon, Rufus Spencer, told the Times in 2011. It couldn't raise enough money from members and it had trouble making loan payments.
Amid the financial problems, New Salem briefly found itself caught in a odd deal involving Jacob Dyck, a so-called sovereign citizen. In years past, Dyck approached Florida property owners who were desperate to avoid foreclosure, offering to put their buildings or land into "pure trusts." He claimed, wrongly, that such trusts can't be taken or taxed because they fall under "common law," out of the reach of government.
New Salem transferred its deeds to a trust operated by Dyck in May 2010, just four months before Fifth Third Bank began foreclosing on the church's properties. Dyck's involvement in the proceedings slowed the bank's case, though the church eventually had Dyck removed from the trust.
Lyons vowed Monday hat the 450-member congregation would rebuild.
"We're doing very well even with this situation," he said. "We'll be okay.
Flanked by church leaders and surrounded by a gaggle of reporters, Lyons spoke softly of the congregation's long history. When asked about his criminal past, church members interceded, saying Lyons was done answering questions.
The pastor walked down an alley and got into a waiting car. As he drove away, a heavy rain began to fall.
Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Dan Sullivan at email@example.com or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.