Tennessee Church Fire Spreads to Three Other Buildings

Fire swept through a historic downtown church early Friday, collapsing its steeple and flicking off embers that set fire to three other buildings, one of them 22 stories tall.

No injuries were immediately reported. The cause of the church fire was under investigation.

The First United Methodist Church, built in 1893, was largely destroyed by the flames, which were reported shortly before 3 a.m. Its roof caved in, the steeple toppled and some of the walls crumbled onto the streets.

Soon after the fire started at the church, three other nearby buildings began burning, including the Lincoln American Tower, once the tallest building in Memphis. The wind was blowing at about 10 mph in that general direction at the time.

The buildings were part of a $45 million renovation into condominiums. Owner Will Chandler told WMC-TV that he was worried one couldn't be salvaged, but he said it looked like the tower might be saved.

The Rev. Martha Wagley, pastor of the church, said members of her congregation gathered on the sidewalks as the building burned, crying and hugging and telling stories of who was "married and buried" in the building and things that had happened in worship services.

Wagley said her church is a "seven day a week" church with a food pantry and other ministries to people downtown.

"The building is lost, but not the church," Wagley said.

By 8 a.m., firefighters were still hosing down the church and other buildings, and emergency vehicles filled blocked off streets. State circuit court, held in a building close to those that caught fire, was canceled for the day, court officials said.