Witness describes what he saw before East Bay's oldest Black church caught fire

ByJ.R. Stone and Anser Hassan, Lena Howland KGO logo
Tuesday, February 21, 2023
Witness recounts moments before Oakland church caught fire
A witness describes what he saw before Oakland's first Black church, First African Methodist Episcopal Church, caught fire Sunday night.

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- Oakland lost a piece of history Sunday night after a massive fire damaged the First African Methodist Episcopal Church - or FAME.

"I did see that flame and it's kind of crazy that an hour later that church is on fire," said Tony Butts who lives nearby.

Butts is recounting the moments before Oakland's First African Methodist Episcopal Church, or FAME Church caught fire.

"Not like a torch that I use being Tony the local plumber and all, but more like a more of a personal torch for drug paraphernalia. That type of stuff, maybe a personal sized torch and I did clearly see that it was ignited when I passed by around 9:15," said Butts.

Investigators tell us they haven't yet determined a cause of the fire but did have arson dogs on scene Monday, sniffing for any traces of accelerants. They say new information in the investigation could be released on Tuesday.

FAME is thought to be the first and oldest black church in the East Bay, dating back to the 1850s.

"I am really at a loss for words. FAME means so much to this community," says the church's pastor, Rodney D. Smith. "We have a feed ministry. We have our shoe drive the city and community knows about. We go out to the homeless shelters."

Pastor Smith took part in a fundraiser at Oakland's Brookins AME Church on Monday morning, hoping to raise funds to rebuild.

Smith says they need money to rebuild, but adds what the city lost goes beyond any dollar amount.

"Our church had not only a dollar value, but a sentimental value, an emotional value. Because so many people were coming up to me last night saying, I got married in that church. My mother's funeral was in that church," says Pastor Smith.

That community connection was evident in the number of people who have been coming by to see the damage.

"This is truly an historic church, with a wealth of history. To see it in this condition is heartbreaking," says Natasha Lewis, who lives in Oakland. She says she has attended many milestone events at the church, such as weddings, christenings and funerals.

"The inside suffered a tremendous amount of damage, particularly the roof and the upper floors. And then, obviously, water damage from the abundance of water we were putting on this fire," says Michael Hunt with the Oakland Fire Department.

VIDEO: 2 children injured after vehicle crashes into Oakland home and causes fire, authorities say

Two children have been taken to a hospital for injuries after a car crashed into an Oakland home, causing a structure fire, says the fire department.

Hunt says the first call about the fire came in around 10:14 p.m. Sunday night and then aggressively spread to the roof. It took almost firefighters almost five hours to contain it.

An investigation is underway to determine a cause. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF, is also on scene to investigate.

"ATF is typical called in to respond to fires that may be suspicious in nature, and also involve religious institutions. Just to do an extra layer of precautionary investigation into what may or may not have occurred," explains Hunt.

The church is in Oakland City Council Member Carroll Fife's District 3. She doesn't think this was a hate crime, but she does have concerns.

"That was not the first thing that came to mind, this being a hate crime. But we are seeing a lot of racist tagging on churches throughout my district," explains Fife. "Honestly, my first thought was, was someone trying to warm themselves in the doorway."

Lots of memories have been lost in the ashes, but one thing this community hasn't lost, is hope.

"They will rebuild. And they will continue to do great work. So, I am excited for the next chapter of First AME," says Lewis.

Church member Tony Hilliard was baptized at the church back in 1950 and says it is the same church that suffered serious damage, being knocked off the foundation during the 1989 earthquake.

"We rebuilt it then, and so we just rebuild it again, so it's just rebuilding the church from the outside, in and we'll move on," Hilliard said.

In the meantime, as they work to clean up and eventually rebuild from the fire, members will continue to worship through Zoom, just as they did during the height of the pandemic.

A GoFundMe has been started to raise money for FAME. You can make a donation here.

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