FORT WORTH - A three-alarm church fire destroyed Clark Temple of Praise in south Fort Worth early Friday, leaving its congregation in tears but vowing to rebuild.
The blaze, reported shortly after midnight, virtually consumed the top two floors of the three-story brick church at 1200 E. Richmond Ave.
Because of the extensive damage - an estimated half a million to the church building and $150,000 to its contents - fire officials say it may take days before the structure is rendered safe enough for investigators to try to determine the fire's cause.
Though he and several church members had tears in their eyes as they stared at the crumbled remains of their church early Friday, Pastor Kenneth Clerkley called the tragedy "a beginning point, not a stopping point."
He said the church's services will continue, even if he has to conduct them in front of its now crumpled remains, and pledged that the congregation would rebuild.
"The church is in the heart. It's in the heart of the people and whatever is in the heart of the people, you can't take away," Clerkley said. "You can take away the place where they worship. You can take away the place where they sleep. But you can't take away what's in their hearts."
Lt. Kent Worley, fire department spokesman, said 911 dispatchers began receiving numerous calls about the fire shortly before midnight.
Responding firefighters entered the church through its front door to try to battle the blaze but were ordered out about a minute later by a battalion chief, Worley said.
"He could see all the fire way up high along the roofline so he went ahead and pulled them out for safety," Worley said. "We just went defensive at that point."
About 60 firefighters fought the fire, which took roughly an hour to bring under control.
"It was burning so intense, it basically just burned itself out for the most part," Worley said.
The building at E. Richmond and Mississippi had been home to its congregation for three decades. The Pentecostal church has about 100 members, she said.
"It was the old YWCA building but we remodeled it in '76 to be our church," said church secretary Tonya White.
White and her husband were driving home when Dennis White received a call from a friend who lived near the church, stating that it looked like their church was on fire. The couple rushed to the scene to find the first firetruck already there and plumes of dark smoke rolling from the church.
"Being secretary of the church as long as I have been, it's like a family member of mine," White said. "It's extremely devastating."
White said the church had their routine Wednesday night service and bible study but was empty on Thursday.
"They still can't find the cause. We have no idea what it could be, even a hint, since there's nothing on Thursday there for us," White said.
Clerkley was in Palestine dealing with a family matter when he was awaken by a phone call from one of the church's members reporting that the church was on fire.
"I couldn't hardly make them out. They were crying," said Clerkely said, pastor at the church since 1994.
Clerkely said he drove back to Fort Worth in record time. He said only when he saw the devastation for himself, did the shock really begin to set in.
Clerkely said he'd recently been talking of building a new church on the site.
"It was time for it to come down," Clerkely said, "It needed to be done."
Clerkley said while he didn't want a fire to be reason for the current church building's fall, "the Lord knows what he's doing."
"We were going to do it with our hands but the Lord has done it for us," Clerkley. "So we're going to do the rest."