ST. PETERSBURG — A fire ripped through a St. Petersburg church Sunday morning, displacing its congregation for the morning services and changing polling locations for the Aug. 26 primary election.
Around 1:30 a.m. Sunday, St. Petersburg Fire Rescue responded to a three alarm fire at Vietnamese Evangelical Church, 4344 21st St. N. No one was injured in the fire, but flames leapt through the roof of the 60-by-80-foot building, and downed nearby power lines.
Investigators are still looking into what caused the fire, but believe it started in the church’s kitchen, located in the center of the building. None of the surrounding homes nestled near the building were damaged, but the church appeared completely gutted.
Tam Tran, a church elder, sat in the gold church van across the street from the smoldering building Sunday morning, windows rolled up to keep out the smell of charred wood. He had just gone to bed after a family meeting at the church, which is affiliated with the United Methodists, when the church’s fire alarm called his cell phone.
The damaged building has housed his congregation for 16 years and one month, Tram said. Congregation members have been planning for the church’s 30 year anniversary on Oct. 4.
“The church means so much to the community. My teenage daughter was crying this morning when she heard the service was cancelled,” Tran said. “My family has been very blessed by the church members, and I know god will continue to bless the church. ... Now we just need another plan.”
Other memebrs of the 250-person congregation wandered around the church campus still dressed in their Sunday best, looking in windows at what instruments and furnishings could be salvaged.
“We’re just here to pray that firefighters can find out what happened and for God to open another door for another church,” said church member Dao Le, who commutes from Tampa every Sunday and Wednesday to attend the church. “It’s one church, one family, one mission and we always laugh and love together.
Though Sunday’s services were cancelled, church members said they hope to hold their regular services in members’ homes or in other local church buildings.
The church acted as a polling place for Precinct 139. On Election Day, those voters must now go to Roberts Recreation Center, 1246 50th Ave. N. in St. Petersburg, at the southwest corner of 50th Avenue North and 12th Street North, said Nancy Whitlock, communications director for the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections. Election staff will call and email voters to alert them to the change, as well as station staff at the church to redirect voters on Election Day with maps and directions.