Fire damages church's roof in Pittsburgh's Allentown section

| Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014, 4:42 p.m.

As they watched Pittsburgh firefighters working Thursday afternoon to extinguish the flames eating away large chunks of the roof on the Hill Top Methodist Church on East Warrington Avenue in Allentown, longtime residents said the fire was damaging more than a house of worship.

“It's sorta the center of the community,” said Pittsburgh City Council President Bruce Kraus, who represents District 3, which includes Allentown. “The senior program is there, several community groups meet there. It's sorta the heartbeat of Allentown. It's significant.”

There were no injuries in the three-alarm fire that the pastor, Susan R. Hutchins, said appears to have been sparked by roofers working with a torch. It took firefighters about 90 minutes to bring the fire, which was reported at 4:16 p.m., under control.

“The church is a valuable resource to the community,” Hutchins said, pointing out that the Allentown Senior Citizen Center, which is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., is located on the ground level of the building.

The Hill Top congregation and another from the Redeemer on the Mount Church also use the facility for Sunday worship and weekly ministerial events.

“The main part of me is grateful nobody was hurt, but part of me is devastated,” said Hutchins, who has been pastor of the church for 17 years. “But God is bigger than a fire.”

“The roofers were working at the back of the church, resealing a flat roof, using a torch, when it caught fire,” said Hutchins. She does not know when the church was built, only that the parish has been located at the site since the late 1800s.

“I live next door and was working in my office on the third floor when I heard something, turned and saw the flames. By the time I got outside, much of the roof was fully engulfed,” Hutchins said.

City arson investigators have not made a ruling on the cause of the fire and have not made an official damage estimate, city Public Safety Department spokeswoman Sonya Toler said.

While some firefighters poured thousands of gallons of water onto the roof, others went inside “to remove some things they thought may be of value to the congregation,” Toler said.

“I mean, this is obviously sad, and this building is used for a lot in the community, but it's also just a building,” said Alex Ielase, pastor of the 50-member Redeemer on the Mount congregation.

“No one was hurt. God closes one door. He can certainly open another one,” Ielase said.

Hutchins was still trying to make arrangements Thursday night for a place to hold services on Sunday.

““We're an old congregation. We're a small congregation, but we are hardy and strong,” Hutchins said. “We'll do whatever needs to be done.”

Michael Hasch is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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