Polk County church destroyed Wednesday by suspicious fire

Polk County church destroyed Wednesday by suspicious fire

August 15th, 2018 by Ben Benton in Breaking News

Mercy Tabernacle church on Clemmer Ferry Road was destroyed in a fire.

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

This story was updated Aug. 15, 2018, at 4:25 p.m. with more information.

Arson is suspected in a fire early Wednesday that destroyed a Polk County, Tennessee, church, according to authorities.

Three of the buildings that make up Mercy Tabernacle on Clemmer Ferry Road were destroyed in the blaze, Polk County Emergency Management Director Steve Lofty said Wednesday morning.

A Benton police officer spotted the fire just inside the western city limits and called it in around 2 a.m. Wednesday, Lofty said. The church is just a few hundred yards off of U.S. Highway 411.

"We had at least 8,000 square feet on fire when we arrived," Lofty said of West Polk Volunteer Fire and Rescue's response. Firefighters from East Polk County Fire and Rescue, and departments in Bradley County and Etowah in McMinn County assisted in battling the fire.

"When we got there, the main sanctuary and one of the other buildings, the roof had collapsed on them," Lofty said. A large portion of the third structure's roof also had collapsed and the remaining roof was on the verge of caving in, he said.

A couple of propane storage tanks had to be removed from the scene, too.

Mercy Tabernacle's website lists Bishop John W. McCann as pastor but no one answered at a number listed under his name. According to a list of coming events, Mercy Tabernacle had plans to host a Feast of Pentecost event in October.

Lofty said he spotted something suspicious almost immediately as he made a circle around the buildings.

"The door had been breached and the glass was busted out of it," Lofty said of a front entrance. That portion of the building was not burning and the structures are not directly connected to each other, he said.

Bomb and arson investigators with the State Fire Marshal's Office will probe the cause of the fire, he said, and the TBI is likely to assist, as well.

TBI officials said late Wednesday they had not yet been asked by the 10th Judicial District Attorney's office to investigate the fire.

The church's pastor lives next door to the church but he was asleep when the fire broke out, officials said. A number of the pastor's family members also live in the area.

By 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, firefighters had left the scene to allow parts of it to cool and for officials to determine what parts of the charred remains were still unstable, Lofty said.

Water to fight the fire was provided by fire hydrants, so firefighters didn't have to use water tankers as a source, he said.

"We put several thousand gallons of water on it," Lofty said.

The structures, or parts of them, date back to 1970, and they were all a total loss, Lofty said.

At the height of the fire, about 25 firefighters were on the scene, he said. No injuries were reported among firefighters or bystanders.

"We're appreciative of the fact that we had all the help we did," Lofty said.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.