Suspicions raised by fire at New Kensington church

| March 8, 2010

Robert Rowe was pained to see a Sunday newspaper photo of his former church engulfed in flames.

Rowe had been a lifelong member of St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church in the 1300 block of Constitution Ave. in New Kensington. Fire destroyed the vacant building late Saturday. It was the last site of the church before the congregation merged with the Bethel AME Church in Tarentum.

"St James was the first black church in New Kensington, and other churches branched off St. James," Rowe said.

In addition to the destroying the old church, the fire caused further damage to the house next to it, Assistant Fire Chief Ed Saliba Jr. said. The pastor's residence was gutted by a Jan. 26 fire, which the state police fire marshal said was intentionally set.

No injuries were reported in Saturday's fire.

Saliba said the fire marshal and city police are investigating the cause.

"With two fires there within five weeks, that's a little suspicious," Saliba said, adding that the buildings have been vacant for at least three years and utilities were shut off long ago.

Saliba said fire Capt. Matt Sobecki lives around the corner from the church and saw the fire within two minutes of his pager sounding at 11:23 p.m.

"It had a heck of a head start," Saliba said.

Saliba said firefighters sprayed nearby houses to keep them from igniting. Still, vinyl siding on one house and a garage apartment melted.

"There was the potential to have four other buildings burned," he said. "The guys did a very good job, considering everything they had going against them."

He said portions of the church's side walls are standing. The rear and front walls collapsed, as did the bell tower, bringing a large cast iron bell with it, he said.

"When the bell came down, it hit with a thud, cracked and split in three pieces," Saliba said, adding that the pieces were cherry red from the heat. "That bell had to weigh over 1,000 pounds."

"None of us realized there was a bell in that tower," he added. "Thank goodness no one was there. A firefighter could have been killed by that."

About 65 firefighters from New Kensington companies Nos. 1, 2 and 3, Arnold Fire Co. No. 2 and Lower Burrell No. 3 responded, according to Saliba. He said firefighters cleared the scene around 2:45 a.m. but returned at 7:25 a.m. when flames rekindled.

Rowe said is painful to remember all the events — weddings, socials, funerals, conferences — that took place at the church, knowing it now is gone.

The church was special to Rowe's sister, Mary Thrower, who said St. James was the only church she knew until the merger about five years ago.

"I got married in that church in 1964. That was the first wedding in that church," said Thrower, widow of Willie Thrower, the legendary New Kensington High School football star who became the first African-American to play quarterback in the NFL.

Rowe said the church was founded in the 1940s and was located at Fourth Avenue and 12th Street before it moved to Constitution Boulevard in 1964.

"It's just devastating," Thrower said. "My father's funeral was held there. The entire Rowe family and this part of the Thrower family were all members of that church. I just can't believed what has happened to it, has happened."

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Category: Church Security

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