A homeless man was in custody Monday for allegedly starting a fire that destroyed a historic church in South Los Angeles and left three firefighters injured, authorities said.
The fire was reported at 2:22 a.m. Sept. 11 at the two-story Victory Baptist Church, 4802 S. McKinley Ave., according to the Los Angeles Fire Department.
Carlos Diaz, 23, was arrested Sunday and was booked on suspicion of arson of a structure, with additional charges pending, according to the LAFD.
“LAFD Arson Investigators and the multi-agency House of Worship Arson Task Force initiated an investigation into the fire’s cause,” an LAFD statement said. “Initial information did not immediately reveal any evidence of an intentionally set fire; however, their persistence later uncovered security footage to help connect the dots.”
The joint investigation included personnel from the Los Angeles School Police Department and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Investigators were aided by eyewitnesses, the LAFD reported.
About 150 firefighters were sent to the fire scene on Sept. 11, said Nicholas Prange of the LAFD.
“Crews initially made entry to find heavy smoke inside the structure,” Prange said in a statement. “As firefighters made entry, inevitably introducing more air to the conditions inside, fire behavior worsened quickly. Approximately 30 minutes after the arrival of firefighters, there was a structural collapse inside, trapping several LAFD members.”
Two mayday calls were sent out over the radio for trapped personnel, and nearby crews quickly rescued three firefighters, officials said. One was taken to a hospital in moderate condition, a second finished battling the fire and was later hospitalized in fair condition, and a third followed up with care on his own after the incident, Prange said.
After the collapse inside the building, crews withdrew into defensive operations, pouring water onto the flames from outside the building. The fire was extinguished in an hour and 40 minutes, Prange said.
Victory Baptist Church was a spiritual center of Los Angeles’ Black community for decades, and a site of major significance for gospel music and the civil rights movement. Mahalia Jackson was one of many noted gospel singers to perform there, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at the church a handful of times beginning in 1959 and continuing in the 1960s.
The church was founded by Arthur Atlas Peters on Easter Sunday in 1943, and moved into the McKinley Avenue building in 1944.
Pastor W. Edward Jenkins has vowed that the church will not fold its tent.
“The building is destroyed, but the church still lives,” Jenkins said on Sept. 11, according to the Los Angeles Times. “The church is not dead. The church is doing fine. The building is in ruins, but we are going to rebuild.”