Fire rips church that was 'heartbeat' of city's Allentown section

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Two Christian congregations and at least 40 Allentown senior citizens were left without a place to gather after a three-alarm fire Thursday ripped through the roof of the church where they assemble.

The three-alarm blaze began at 4:14 p.m. while workers were on the roof of the church at 631 E. Warrington Ave., Pittsburgh public safety spokeswoman Sonya Toler said.

Ripley & Sons Construction workers hired by Hilltop United Methodist Church told the Rev. Sue Hutchins that something caught fire while they were working on the roof, she said. A news release from Pittsburgh’s public safety department confirmed the blaze was caused by workers who were using propane torches to repair the roof and gutters.

“It’s pretty devastating, but God is bigger than any fire,” said Rev. Hutchins, whose congregation, along with Redeemer On The Mount, and the Allentown Senior Citizen Center are housed in the church.

She said she was working in her house next door when she saw burning material falling from the roof. She then helped ensure that those in the senior center were moved to safety and that the roofers were OK.

A third alarm was called by 5:06 p.m. in deference to firefighters’ safety in Thursday’s steamy weather, Ms. Toler said.

Chief Jones said fires in churches can be “very difficult” to extinguish because of the vaulted ceilings.

Firefighters removed items from the sanctuary that they believed to be of sentimental value to the congregations, such as plaques and items used in religious services, the chief said. But a conservative estimate of the damage was set at $1.5 million, the public safety department said in its release.

“It’s a small step, considering the amount of damage,” he said.

No one was injured in the fire, Ms. Toler said. A roofer hyperventilated but declined care, she said.

Rev. Hutchins said the construction company has done work at the church many times. A message left for Ripley & Sons was not returned Thursday night.

The sanctuary had extensive water damage and the ceiling collapsed in several places, Chief Jones said.

The building will be assessed by the city Bureau of Building Inspection to determine if it needs to be demolished or can be renovated.

City council president Bruce Kraus, whose district includes Allentown, was at the scene and said at least 40 people depend on the senior center every day for programming such as entertainment, socialization and lunch.

The Brashear Association runs the center.

“It’s sort of the heartbeat of Allentown,” Mr. Kraus said of the building, which also hosts community meetings.

First Published August 28, 2014 7:12 PM

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