Fire damages church in Hampden; Four-alarm blaze engulfs 19th-century structure on 36th St. at rush hour


A four-alarm fire severely damaged a 19th-century stone church at 36th Street and Hickory Avenue in Hampden late yesterday afternoon, demanding the efforts of 80 firefighters and snarling neighborhood traffic during the evening rush hour.

Smoke and flames could be seen for miles throughout the city.

About 30 pieces of fire equipment -- including five aerial towers -- responded to Apostolic Truth Tabernacle in the 1000 block of W. 36th St. about 4: 30 p.m., pouring tons of water on the burning church.

No one was in the church when the fire broke out, and no injuries were reported. More than 120 people attend services there.

Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, spokesman for Baltimore City Fire Department, said the cause of the fire, which was brought under control at 6: 17 p.m., was under investigation. He said the fire apparently began on the first floor and made its way up interior walls to the ceiling and the slate-covered roof.

Much of the building was damaged by smoke and water, with the basement about knee-deep in water. An estimate of damage was not immediately available.

"God has plans for the church," said the Rev. Frank Smith, associate pastor, "and while the damage is severe, it is a temporary setback in our worshiping God."

Firefighters reluctantly broke a large, circular stained-glass window on the side of the church tower facing Hickory Avenue -- where pigeons were nesting -- to get at the blaze. Streams of water cascaded off the roof and, at one point, out the front door, freezing on the pavement.

Just up 36th Street, the cast and crew of the movie "The Runaway Bride," starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, continued filming.

Julio Ayala, 29, a church member for several years, was at work at a nearby warehouse when a colleague told him the building was burning.

Ayala rushed outside, gave fire personnel his keys to the front door and waited as the fire burned.

The structure, formerly the Grace-Hampden United Methodist Church, dates to the 1880s. Smith said it was up for sale and had been appraised at about $400,000. It was insured.

A prayer service had been scheduled at 7: 30 p.m. yesterday.

An agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was on the scene. Torres said the ATF's presence is required under federal mandate after a string of fires over the past couple of years at predominantly black churches in the South.

Although Hampden's main boulevard was closed during the blaze, local businesses remained open and large crowds gathered to watch the fire.

Sun staff writer Jacques Kelly contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 1/07/99

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