Three-Alarm Fire Breaks Out at Historic First Congregational Church in Berkeley

Berkeley fire chief said the flames were so intense, part of the roof collapsed at the church.

Fire crews raced on Friday afternoon to battle a three-alarm fire at an iconic East Bay church just blocks away from the University of California at Berkeley campus.

Asst. Berkeley Fire Chief Donna McCraken said the fire broke out about 12:30 p.m. and the flames were so intense, part of the roof collapsed at the First Congregational Church at 2345 Channing Way. Fire crew were able to get the blaze under control at 3:20 p.m. 

"You can see the ceiling really sagging right now," said Berkeley Assistant Fire Chief Dave Brannigan.

The fire forced 94 kids and 14 staff members to evacuate from the East Bay School for Boys, which shares the church campus, officials said.

"Fire crews went inside to try to make an aggressive interior attack and we discovered that the fire is running through the attack," Berkeley Fire Chief Gil Dong said.

Fire crews raced on Friday afternoon to battle a three-alarm fire at an iconic East Bay church just blocks away from the University of California at Berkeley campus. Elyce Kirchner reports.

A firefighter got trapped on the second floor during the initial firefight, and had to make a "mayday" call over the radio. Fire personnel rushed to give him a ladder, with which he escaped, uninjured.

"It was pretty terrifying," Brannigan said. "You never want to hear that and we were all coming out of the building, which is a fairly chaotic time and when you hear a 'mayday,' all attention goes to that person."

Aerial footage showed massive flames spewing from the top of the brick building. The fast-moving flames triggered a roof collapse and forced firefighters to back out of the church.

"We had to go defensive, which means we are spraying water from the exterior trying to put the fire out from the oustide," Dong said.

Fire officials said 60 firefighters responded to the blaze.

First Congregational Church, which boasts a "progressive, welcoming congregation" that serves the East Bay, is a three-minute walk from the Cal campus.

In addition to a congregation, the historic building houses a thrift store, church offices and auditorium that were also burned. The church has also been used as a shelter for the homeless. Officials said that will not be an option this winter.

"They have a very social presence, so it's a great loss to everybody," Berkeley-resident Laurie Gundling said.

First Congregation Church was built in 1925 and was designed by Horace G. Simpson, according to Berkeley Walks: Revealing Rambles Through America's Most Intriguing City by Robert E. Johnson and Janet L. Byron.

“Oh man, that’s so sad,” Byron told NBC Bay Area on Friday. She and her colleague routinely show off the church as one of the highlights on their walking tours. She said the church’s sanctuary is especially excellent for acoustics. 

But plaster that fell from the ceiling due to water damage littered the sanctuary Friday night.

"I'm certain it's going to be months before we're back in our sanctuary," said Rev. Molly Baskette. 

According to Byron, that particular neighborhood in Berkeley is extremely dense with other churches nearby, including one across the street. At one time, her book notes, Berkeley had among the highest number of churches per capita in the Bay Area.

The church is well known in liberal Berkeley for performing same-sex marriages and hosting musical performances, such as the Midsummer Mozart Festival. Evoloutionary biologists also come to speak there, and rainbow flags and "Pray for Orlando" are the lead images on the church's Facebook page.

Next week, the church was poised to host a forum for young Christians called "Do No Harm! But take no S*@%."

Baskette, who said that work was being done on the roof, toured the church building after the flames had been put out. She was relieved by what she saw.

"It'll affect all the electrical system in there, but it's definitely better than what I was imagining," she said.

But investigators won't comment on whether that sparked the fire. Police are also said to be investigating reports of someone lighting matches nearby.

However, Brannigan did say that the building was saved because firefighters stopped the flames from spreading to the main church attic.

"We could have lost everything," Brannigan said.

Over the weekend, building inspectors will determine just how safe the church is. Meanwhile, the nearly 500 parishioners plan to rebuild their beloved church.

"A lot of hard work ahead but God is good and we'll get through it," Baskette said.  

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