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‘Tried by the fire’: After blaze destroys KCK church, pastor says group will rebuild

Fire investigators, joined by a dog specially trained to detect chemicals used to set fires, sifted through debris Sunday to try to determine the cause of a blaze that destroyed a Kansas City, Kansas, church.

The early morning blaze swept through the Wyandotte Tabernacle church at 1229 S. 59th Street, which is just north of Metropolitan Avenue in the Turner area of the city.

The dog didn’t detect any possible accelerants, said John Ham, public information officer for the Kansas City Field Division of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. But the investigation continued.

“This fire investigation, like all of our fire investigations, starts with absolutely everything on the table and then as evidence allows us, we start ruling things out,” Ham said. “As we’re able to do that, we will start checking those things off and narrow it down to a place of origin and then a cause.”

Ham later in the day said the preliminary investigation determined that the fire was caused by a piece of musical equipment in the sanctuary of the church.

The ATF is helping with the investigation because it has a mandate from Congress to investigate fires at houses of worship in the United States.

The fire was reported about 1:50 a.m. when a passerby noticed flames coming out of the basement of the church, according to police. Kansas City, Kansas, firefighters responded within two minutes and found the church engulfed in flames.

Flames were venting from the roof as firefighters attacked the blaze, according to Assistant Fire Chief Morris Letcher of the Kansas City, Kansas, Fire Department.

The roof partly collapsed and firefighters went into defensive mode. More crews were called to the scene to extinguish the fire. Two firefighters suffered minor injuries and were taken to hospitals.

wyandotte church fire photo
Investigators from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Kansas Fire Marshal’s office and Kansas City, Kansas, Fire Department investigate the cause of a fire that destroyed the Wyandotte Tabernacle church early Sunday. Robert A. Cronkleton bcronkleton@kcstar.com

Mark Sanders, senior pastor of Wyandotte County Tabernacle Inc., said a phone call from firefighters woke him about 2:40 a.m. to tell him about the church fire.

As Sanders rushed to the scene, he saw from a distance the sky over the church glowing from the flames. He hoped to arrive in time to help save church belongings.

He had a powerless feeling when he arrived at the church and saw the blaze, he said. But he didn’t lose hope.

“As long as there is breath, there is always hope,” Sanders said. “It’s just a temporary setback in long-term success. We’re not going to let it stop us.

“We’re not going to let this hinder us from being a light in this community and a help in this community,” he continued. “That is what we’re called to do is to serve this community as children and followers of Christ.”

That’s with or without a church building, Sanders said.

During the night, it appeared that the fire had engulfed only the front of the sanctuary, Sanders said. But as daylight broke, it became evident that the fire swept through 95 percent of the building.

Firefighters battled the fire until it was declared out about 5:30 a.m., Ham said.

“It was a hot fire that burned for quite a while,” Ham said.

Services were canceled Sunday morning. Sanders had prepared a sermon with the theme: God will not put anything on you more than you can bear.

“My title (of the sermon) was simply ‘Tried by the fire,’” he said. “I went to bed last night not knowing what was going to transpire.”

His sermon was prepared at the first of the week.

“My words of encouragement to the church this morning was going to be that we can conquer anything and that there’s hope in God,” Sanders said. He still believes that.

Sanders said that the church will rebound and rebuild.

“That means to come back and be greater than we were before,” Sanders said.

Investigation

Fire investigators from the the Kansas City, Kansas, Fire Department, the Kansas Fire Marshal’s office and the local officers of the ATF responded to the scene to try to determine the cause.

The investigation continued Sunday. Investigators bought in heavy equipment to move some of the burnt debris out of the way so they could try to identify where it started.

“Certainly with a fire that burns this long and this hot, a lot of what we need to make that determination burns up in that process, but we got the best fire investigators out here from those agencies,” Ham said. “If there’s a way to determine it, we will get it done.”

Investigators expected to be at the church for at least a day. Although investigators have yet to find anything that would suggest arson, it’s way too early in the investigation to rule it out, Ham said.

The church, which has about 70 members, originated at 10th and Ohio in the 1950s and then moved to its current location where it built a new church in the 1970s.

The first Saturday of every month, the church opens a food pantry that serves the community. On Saturday, it provided food to 871 people.

“When you leave here and shut the gate and everything is intact and the next time you show up everything is in flames, it’s just a little bit overwhelming and shocking,” Sanders said.

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Robert A. Cronkleton gets up very early in the morning to bring readers breaking news about crime, transportation and weather at the crack of dawn. He’s been at The Star since 1987 and now contributes data reporting and video editing.
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