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Joy-Riders Lose Control--Bulldozer Wrecks Church

July 22, 1987|CRAIG QUINTANA | Times Staff Writer

A group of teen-agers joy riding on a bulldozer from a nearby construction site apparently lost control of the tractor and sent it crashing into a Baptist Church in Watts, extensively damaging the building, police and church members said Tuesday.

No injuries were reported in the accident, but church officials said the extent of the damage would disrupt services at the church at Graham Avenue and 105th Street.

Witnesses said the driver jumped from the bulldozer as it failed to scale a steep mound of earth and rolled across Graham Avenue, smashing into the corner of the one-story building at about 9 p.m. Monday.

The bulldozer tore through the church kitchen and into a meeting hall before stalling on the crumbled remains of a concrete wall.

"The most important thing was that nobody was hurt," said Welton Pittman, pastor of the 100-member Mount Bethel Missionary Baptist Church. He noted that Monday was one of the few nights when the church is empty.

One of the first church members on the scene, Mary Harris, said the extent of the damage was shocking. "I said, 'Oh, my God,' " she said. "There was nothing else to say. This is unbelievable."

Pittman said city Building and Safety Department inspectors were scheduled to examine the structure today. "They are going to let us know if the building will be condemned or if we can worship in here," he said. "I think it's gone."

The structure, which is insured, has been valued at $70,000 to $80,000, he said.

Pittman expressed hope that the setback will be a rallying point for the congregation.

"Some things happen for the best," he said. "We'll just have to fight harder.

"I think the congregation we have has enough strength and enough faith that they will not let this stop us."

Pittman said he would like to see church services continue, even if that means conducting them under a tent in the parking lot.

"This is a community church and I want to stay in the community," he said.

Harris said that she has seen the youths drive the tractors around the construction site after the crews go home, but that there has never been a mishap.

Herzog Construction Co. supervisor Steve Sutter, who labored for about 30 minutes with construction workers to extricate the tractor, said the company's attempts to keep youths from riding the machines have been frustrated.

Sutter said the firm collects the keys from all of the tractors on the site, but the "common key" ignition on the older machines makes them relatively easy to start.

"Anybody could have driven it or could have jumped it," he said. "You could take a pair of pliers or just about anything and start it."

Because of congregation plans to build a larger church building and preschool on the site, the loss was tempered somewhat, Pittman said.

"If we didn't have those plans, we'd be just about out of business," he said.

The church was organized seven years ago, with fewer than 10 members operating out of a storefront office. Since then, it has grown to the point where a $300,000 expansion was needed, Pittman said. Despite the mishap, he said, he hopes the attention will elevate the church's recognition in the community.

"Not everyone in our community knows we are here," he said. "With the exposure we got, many who did not know we were here now do."

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