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California and the West

Landmark Church Destroyed by Fire

Tragedy: No one is hurt in the predawn blaze that San Luis Obispo authorities call suspicious.

April 16, 2001|JOE MOZINGO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A large hillside church that was a familiar landmark for motorists traveling along U.S. 101 through San Luis Obispo burned to the ground early Easter Sunday morning in a fire that authorities called suspicious.

The flames set off an alarm at the United Methodist Church just before 5 a.m., but by the time firefighters arrived the 40-year-old building was engulfed, officials said.

The firefighters were forced into a "defensive posture" and "battled more than three hours before gaining control," officials said.

Investigators said they have determined that some type of incendiary device likely caused the fire, but did not specify what it was.

Police Det. David Darbyshire said the device could have been anything from a pack of matches thrown through a window to a Molotov cocktail.

"We are investigating the possibility of a forced entry into the building," he also said.

Authorities had cordoned off the ruins before members of the parish arrived for sunrise services. As dozens of congregants pulled up to the parking lot, some looked on the collapsed roof and falling timbers with tears in their eyes.

No one was injured in the fire and police did not have damage estimates. The FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms are assisting the police and fire departments with the investigation, Darbyshire said.

Meanwhile, the senior pastor, Nelson Stringer, watched his A-frame sanctuary turn to ashes. At one point, he peered up in the starry morning sky to the lighted cross on a nearby mountain and felt a sense of "reassurance" for his 130-year-old congregation, he said.

On the peak, members of various churches who had trekked up for an early service looked down on the flames and embers rising in the chill of the valley.

"They were praying for us," Stringer said.

He asked the pastor of a nearby Lutheran congregation if he could borrow some folding chairs to hold services in the parking lot. But instead, the Rev. Russ Gordon invited the Methodist parish to join his own.

"We had joint service--about Easter, a new life and rising from the ashes" said Stringer.

Even beyond the religious community, the pastor said he received a profound outpouring of support from the pastoral college town of 43,000 on the Central Coast.

"We're small enough and close enough that the fire chief, it was like it was his own church," Stringer recalled. "The police chief stopped by, and a councilwoman came by with a bouquet of flowers."

David Smiley said it was the talk of the day at his own Presbyterian church. "It's been a local landmark as long as I've been here," said Smiley, who is a campus minister at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

The building's demise was especially personal for Phyllis Davies, who helped construct the chapel as a college student in the early 1960s. She devoted much of her life to the parish.

Her daughter, who plans to play the oboe at Carnegie Hall soon, first performed with the instrument under the giant stained glass of the church. When Davies' son died in an airline crash in 1984, the memorial service was held there.

Davies choked up at describing the sight of a piece of her life moldering in smoke on the hill.

"I remember I was part of a dream of building a beautiful church, a church where life would be celebrated," she said. "This again reminds me that while life is really perishable, we have to know how to begin again."

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