PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — Portsmouth Fire Department officials say the fire at a church late Tuesday night was an accident. However, they are now working to find out if it started because of a mechanical problem or an electrical one.
Dispatchers received a 911 call about the fire from a nearby resident, just minutes after 10 p.m. It happened at Pentecostal Holiness Church in the 6000 block of Arthur Avenue.
Battalion Chief Mike Stockton said the fire started in an exterior HVAC unit and spread to the walls and floors of the church. He said it took crews about 30 minutes to bring the flames under control.
Reverend Marlon Harvin said the damage will cost the church thousands of dollars to repair.
“This is going to have a major impact, you know, because this church has a lot of historic sentimental value to it, even in our 115th anniversary. So, a lot of people love this church,” Harvin said. “The first reaction is, you have shock, because when you really love your church and really love your ministry, and to see it being damaged by the fire. But our faith holds strong. We believe that we are going to restore and then go on to greater things.”
Churchgoer Mildred Mills lives across the street from the church. A passerby saw the smoke and woke her. “I said, ‘Oh, our church is on fire, our church is on fire,'” she recounted.
“I just got home last night and I shed tears. [I was] emotional because it hurt me,” she said, after seeing the commotion.
Mills watched part of history being destroyed. “All the many years, this is the first time I’ve ever seen something like that, as long as I’ve been living across there, right from this church, coming across here as a little girl.”
The church is where she’s worshiped for 70 years, since she was 4-years-old. Mills raised her two sons and her grandchildren at the church. Her parents rest in the cemetery nearby.
“It’s hard because we’re so used to coming to church every Wednesday night, especially bible study,” Mills said.
Pastor Harvin said firefighters had to break through the floor of the church kitchen to stop the blaze. “After the initial shock, it’s a little overwhelming to really see how much damage it was,” he said.
Pastor Harvin says there were blessings, despite the blaze. “It started heading up the wall. The fire crew got it before it really got to the attic area,” he said.
The fire destroyed part of the church’s original foundation, which was laid 115 years ago. The bricks and strong wood made a difference. “The physical aspect of the foundation really saved it,” Harvin said.
Mills is confident the congregation will rebuild. “We’re going to come together. We ain’t gonna let this get us down,” she said.
Service for Wednesday has been cancelled. Reverend Harvin said they have not decided if there will be service on Sunday.
“Most likely we will have the people congregate here, even if we have to fellowship outside. We are not going to stop. We are excited that God still gives us the chance to assemble ourselves here,” Harvin said.