A man driving a van lost control of the vehicle, struck a tree and then jumped or fell out before it slammed into the side of a southwest Charlotte church and burst into flames.
Police are investigating the cause of the wreck, reported about 12:30 a.m. Monday at New Shiloh Baptist Church on Moreland Street. They're also investigating accounts from neighbors who told them they heard gunshots before the van hit the church.
The driver, whose name wasn't released late Monday, was taken to Carolinas Medical Center for treatment of injuries police described as life-threatening. Police said the van may have been stolen.
Hours before sunrise, church members gathered outside the building to pray and to lift each other's spirits. Among them was Pastor Charles Booker. He was awakened by a telephone call from a church member who lives across the street from the building.
"There's a van in your study and your study is on fire," Booker recalled the man saying.
When he arrived at the church, Booker said he could still see the flames. The sanctuary sustained smoke damage, but there was heavy fire damage to his office, the fellowship hall and the elder care area of the church. The roof partially collapsed.
At least 50 of the 200 or so members of the church stopped by Monday, beginning about 12:30 a.m., Booker said. Some trickled in as late as 6:30 p.m.
"We're all in a good mood," he said. "We stood in the yard and praised the Lord anyway."
Choir rehearsal was canceled Monday night and tonight. Bible study is canceled for Wednesday night. But the scattered bricks and charred debris won't keep members from having regular worship service on Sunday, Booker said.
Church leaders haven't found a location yet but said they were confident Monday they'd find a place. A Saturday back-to-school festival and voter registration drive will be held on the grounds of the church beginning at 10 a.m.
The church sanctuary, near West Boulevard and Old Steele Creek Road, was built in 1986. The offices were built in 1991.
"We haven't lost hope," Booker said. "The offices will have to be torn down completely. But, we can build again."