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A force of nature batters South L.A. church

A tree planted years ago by a neighborhood boy is rattled and dropped by the wind onto the 62-year-old Pilgrim Community Church, which has been deemed unsafe by authorities.

October 29, 2009|ruben vives

Tony Peterson was 15 when he planted a pine sapling outside of his mother's home in South Los Angeles.

For years he watched it grow, but then life took over. Peterson found a girlfriend, got married and moved out. As for the tree, it grew on its own, Peterson said.

Over four decades, the pine grew into a towering "y," its thick trunk stretching and leaning toward homes in the 4900 block of Wadsworth Avenue. Its roots had burst through the ground, exposing themselves.

Neighbors, including the now 58-year-old Peterson, feared the giant tree would one day fall.

On Tuesday night, part of it did. Gusty winds tore free a 90-foot section and dropped it on the Pilgrim Community Church next door.

The impact knocked the little white church off its foundation, caused the ceiling to cave in and ripped apart the building's entrance. It was deemed unsafe by authorities.

A piano and an organ were also destroyed.

Over the phone, Pastor John Davis said he was on his way home about 6 p.m. Tuesday when a church member called and told him of the disaster.

The pastor said he was emotional as he rushed to the scene.

"I thought the church was on fire," Davis said.

He worried, too, that someone might still be inside -- the church hosts community meetings on some Tuesday nights.

When he arrived, he was relieved to learn that nobody had been in the church when the tree fell, but he was still shaken by what he saw.

"I had mixed feelings," Davis recalled. "I was happy it wasn't on fire, but when I saw the damage that the tree had caused, I was sad."

The pastor said he knew the church was insured against fire, but he did not know if it was protected against collapsed pine trees.

Standing outside of the church Wednesday morning, churchgoer Lorraine Cook-Curry, a retired telephone company employee, gazed at the destruction in disbelief.

"I saw it on TV and thought the tree fell on the edge of it," Cook-Curry said.

She said the building was at least 100 years old. It had first served as a family home in 1910. Then in 1947, the home was converted into the Pilgrim Community Church by Cook-Curry's grandfather, the Rev. Henry E. Cook.

Cook family members were the first to attend the little church, she said. Over the years it began to function as the community's church.

About a decade ago, a small bungalow was added to the rear of the church. The tiny social hall is used for fundraisers, luncheons and award ceremonies, Cook-Curry said.

The church celebrated its 62nd anniversary this month. In all those years, she said, the church had withstood major earthquakes and the Los Angeles riots. Not once had it been burglarized, she said.

As she looked at the branches of the tree and the pine cones scattered on the ground, Cook-Curry shook her head.

"All it took was a tree," she said.

Next door, where Peterson's mother lives, the base of the tree was decorated with plastic dinosaurs and children's stuffed animals, which had been nailed to the trunk. Peterson said he felt terrible about what had happened, as he surveyed the scene from his mother's front porch.

For years he had considered having the tree cut back, but said he couldn't afford it. Neighbors said they reached out to Peterson's mother, Odie Peterson, and offered to pay for some of the expense of pruning the tree, but nothing ever came of it.

Tony Peterson said he was not aware of such offers.

Now neighbors fear that the remaining section of the tree will also fall.

Maria Vega, 71, who lives across the street, said her bedroom is now in the tree's shadow. She said she's worried. "I don't understand why that tree hasn't been cut down," Vega said.

Peterson said the section that broke off Tuesday was the weak part, and that he didn't think the rest of the tree would cause any problems. Still, he said he thinks the tree should be trimmed.

"I guess this is a debt I was going to get into," Peterson said. "My biggest relief is that nobody was hurt, nobody was at the church."

"I call that divine intervention," Cook-Curry said.

At a house next to the church, Amaparo Gonzalez, 40, agreed. She said she was home with her 7-month-old twins when a portion of the tree struck the top of her bedroom, where one of the boys was sleeping.

"He's got a strong angel because he was well-protected," Gonzalez said.

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ruben.vives@latimes.com

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