NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) — Two days after Christmas, it was a terrible sight at a church in Westchester County.
Smoke poured out of Zion Baptist in New Rochelle.
Several firefighters were injured putting out the destructive, three-alarm blaze, CBS2’s Tony Aiello reported Thursday.
Heavy smoke obscured the high-rise buildings a few blocks away, as fire raged through the rafters of the church, located on Lockwood Avenue.
“When I was younger I used to look at that cross that’s on the side of the church … and it used to keep me into God,” resident Beth Bartlett said.
A three-alarm fire brought 60 firefighters to Zion Baptist, a beloved gathering place for New Rochelle’s African-American community.
Brenda Falus is a 50-year member.
“It’s heartbreaking. It’s absolutely heartbreaking,” Falus said.
“You think of the people. You think of the congregation. That’s their life. That’s what they circle everything around, you know?” New Rochelle Fire Department Chief Andy Sandor said.
Chief Sandor said the thick smoke made this a difficult job. It was evident as the steam rose into the chilly air from the sweaty uniform of one firefighter.
“There’s a lot of little areas that crews have to get into and open up, very labor intensive,” Sandor said.
Several members of the NRFD were checked for smoke inhalation. Four needed medical attention for minor injuries.
The structure dates to 1924. It was home to the local women’s club until the Zion congregation bought it in 1965. CBS2’s Aiello saw pictures of the elegant interior, including red covering the floor and the upholstered pews.
Due to the fire, the sanctuary was soaked with water, but much of what’s inside can be salvaged, officials told Aiello.
“It do hurt, but thank God it ain’t no worse. That’s all we can say,” church member Virginia Bartee said.
The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives joined investigators at the scene to offer technical assistance, as they work to determine the cause.
The ATF said since a series of church fires in 1996, it often visits these scenes. It’s protocol and not a sign that anything is considered suspicious.