A South Los Angeles pastor said he fears he may have accidentally started a fire that engulfed his congregation's historic church Tuesday morning, injuring three firefighters.
Lawrence Magee, 66, told reporters outside what remained of Crouch Memorial Church of God in Christ at 1001 E. 27th St. that he thought the blaze may have started when he turned on the church heater.
"I wanted to make sure it was working for tomorrow," he said. "It's supposed to rain."
Magee arrived before 9:30 a.m. and moments after turning on the heater, he saw smoke coming from the church vents high in the wooden building.
"It didn't look good, so I came outside and called 911," he said.
Before even a second fire truck had arrived, the century-old church was swallowed by the flames. The fire started in the attic and spread fast, firefighters said.
"So fast, in seconds. Unbelievable," Magee said. "The reality started to set in. This is where I worship. This is where I preach. And I'm starting to feel the impact of what's happening here."
Magee's eyes were teary as he spoke to reporters outside the smoldering church.
"I feel terrible," he said.
Magee has led the congregation, with an estimated 50 members, since January 2011. The church was built in the late 1890s, records show. Magee said it used to serve as the meeting place for women's temperance groups during the Prohibition era.
Officials said three firefighters were injured in the blaze, two during the initial response when the roof collapsed on them while they were inside, working up toward the attic, said Capt. Jaime Moore. The third firefighter was hurt later as crews extinguished smoldering hot spots in the rubble.
The blaze was mostly extinguished by 10:30 a.m.; the cause is under investigation.
Longtime neighborhood resident Rudy Mendoza said he was getting ready for a job interview at Target when he heard the sirens and went outside to see what was going on. Just across the street, the church was ablaze.
"In a matter of seconds, it was heavily engulfed in flames," he said.
The 43-year-old had a front-row seat Tuesday as the media and firefighters set up in front of his home and on his lawn. He called the manager at Target to say he couldn't make his interview and suggested they turn on the news to see he was telling the truth.
He watched as the roof collapsed and crews pulled out one of the injured firefighters.
"I hope he's OK. I hope nothing's wrong with him," Mendoza said. "I thank God it wasn't a Sunday. If it was a Sunday, we would have been in trouble."