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A massive fire this morning destroyed a church founded in 1865 and heavily damaged or destroyed at least two others buildings, fire officials said.
The fire, at Zion Baptist Church at Green and High streets in Olde Towne, sent flames shooting into the night sky and clouds of smoke billowing for miles.
Firefighters were called to the scene about 4:40 a.m., said Fire Chief Newell Whitehead. An explosion blew off the third floor of a building owned by the church and the debris hit the second floor of another nearby building, Whitehead said.
"When my people first got there, they couldn't even tell it was a church, there was so much fire," Whitehead said. "We heard the explosion, but nobody smelled the odor of gas."
Whitehead said the explosion likely was caused by a buildup of heat and gas that was trapped inside the building. Debris flew into streets, which were blocked later by police.
"It looks like a war zone," said Portsmouth Battalion Chief Jeff Terwilliger. An air conditioning unit torn out by the fire rested on the sidewalk at the corner of High and Green streets. Water ran down the sidewalk.
Residents of nearby apartments huddled in the early morning cold and later were taken to a church at Washington and High streets to get warm. Whitehead said firefighters had made a search of that building and determined it was clear. He hoped the residents would be able to get back inside by the end of the day.
Firefighters expected to remain at the scene all day, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was on hand to help with the investigation. The ATFs invovlement is routine because the structure was a church, Whitehead said.
The building was too unstable shortly after 9 a.m. to send investigators inside to search for a cause of the blaze, Whitehead said. No damage estimate was available.
A worker operating a backhoe began tearing down the rest of the church walls about 3 p.m. Small flames still showed in the rubble.
Also destroyed was The Vision Center, a building owned by the church and used for meetings, weddings and other events, said Fletcher Parker, chairman of the church's deacon board.
Like other church members, Parker mentioned Zion's prominent role in Portsmouth's history. She said blacks founded the church, leaving the nearby Court Street Baptist Church. That was in 1865, the year the Civil War ended.
"Three hundred and eighteen black members of Court Street Baptist Church were issued an official letter of dismissal," says the publication "Our Black Heritage," by the Gamma Delta Omega Chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, in the city library. Their ownership of the land on Green Street "represented the first land ownership by blacks in the city of Portsmouth, Virginia," it says.
Parker said the structure wasn't the original church building, but he could not say what happened to the first building.
Father Mike Boehling, who lives in the rectory of St. Paul's Catholic Church, said he woke up before 6 a.m. and heard noises outside. He got up to see what was happening and saw large groups of people huddled, some with their pets.
They had fled the condos near the fire; some were shoeless.
He opened the church so they could leave the cold and offered them water and food.
Boehling said that at one point 40 to 50 people were in the church. Gradually the number dropped as loved ones came for them.
Most couldn't get to their cars, which were parked in a lot behind the fire.
Rita Green, one of the residents, said she lived in a renovated condo above a French restaurant on High Street.
She said her teenaged son woke her about 4:30 a.m. His room was filled with smoke, she said. She looked outside and could see the reflection of the fire across the street and heard crackling.
"That's what woke me up — the crackling," said Sonia Williams, who was sitting on a pew of the church with her sister.
Williams said she saw beams of fire in the rear courtyard entrance to her condo and had to exit through the front of the building. She left in a robe. Her sister eventually brought her clothes and socks.
For hours, Red Cross workers roamed the streets, providing food and coffee for firefighters and letting residents know they would help anyone who was displaced.
Green hoped it would not come to that.
"I'm keeping my fingers crossed and praying," she said.
Pat Cox, a parish administrative assistant at St. Paul's, said about 20 members of Zion Baptist came to the Catholic church to pray.
"They gathered around and one of them was reading from the Bible," Cox said.
Church members gathered in a parking lot near County and Green streets early this morning and watched as firefighters sprayed the smoldering rubble from ladder trucks. They hugged each other, stood in a circle and prayed and talked about the church.
"When I heard about it, I was numb," said Dorestne Ward, an associate minister at Zion, who was baptized in the church at age 10. She quickly made her way to the church after getting a call from a guard at a nearby shipyard. She said she was devastated when she saw the damage.
"Zion is a historic church where the people are not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We care for the homeless and for each other," she said.
"Everybody is visibly shaken by it," she added. "That's to be expected. But we still have hope, because we know that God is able."
Deacon board chairman Parker described the congregation of more than 200 members as a "Bible-teaching, Bible-preaching" church that helped the homeless and tutored children.
Helping the homeless meant allowing them to shower and wash their clothes in a separate "drop-in" building on Green Street, church members said. Three times a week, the church feeds 100 or so people.
Inside the church were Christmas food baskets loaded with turkeys and hams that church members had planned to give to the homeless, said church member Carol King. Those were lost in the fire, but King said she had heard that some businesses were already offering to replace them.
The next step for the church members is unclear, but Parker was hopeful.
"This is just a building, the church is within us, in our hearts," Parker said. "Hopefully, we can go on for another 100 years."
Virginian-Pilot staff writers Cindy Clayton, Janie Bryant, Carolyn Shapiro, Matthew Roy, Jim Washington and Dave Forster contributed to this report.