At least five firefighters were injured and taken to a hospital Sunday night after battling a blaze that destroyed a historic church in south Minneapolis.

Late Sunday night, the cause of the fire that consumed the Walker Community United Methodist Church was still undetermined, although some people at the scene speculated it might have been caused by a lightning strike while close neighbors thought it possibly might be arson.

The injured firefighters were taken to Hennepin County Medical Center. Three firefighters were released from the hospital, but two remain, according to reports. At least one firefighter has significant burns, but are not considered life-threatening.

Members of the congregation have scheduled a prayer service for 9:30 a.m. in the Living Spirit Church nearby, another Methodist congregation. After the service they will decide on their next steps.

Conrad deFiebre, who's attended the church for 41 years, said he spent much of the evening at the church, as did many of its approximately 150 members.

He saw the firefighters who were injured coming down from the church's attic, where they apparently had been burned in a flashover situation, deFiebre said. He said they were apparently trying to pull off their masks, which melted on their faces.

Deputy Fire Chief Todd Steinhilber said the department had not made a determination on the cause of the fire, which consumed the multi-story brick structure.

"We had firefighters get hurt and that was our number one priority," Steinhilber said in between issuing orders.

The church is situated in the Powderhorn Park neighborhood of south Minneapolis.

"This is a sad day," said Gillette West, a member of Occupy Minneapolis, an activist group that meets regularly at the church. "This is devastating ... they have been very good to us."

The deputy chief did not provide an update on the extent of the injuries, but a police spokesman reported that four of the five firefighters were being treated for thermal injuries.

The fire, which broke out at 8:19 p.m. and burned for hours, drew hundreds of spectators and involved scores of firefighters.

"It's a beautiful old building," said Hugh Brown, a nearby resident who was at the scene within an hour. "It was really going. It looked like it started at the top, on the west end."

West, who lives close to the church and who said she has been a volunteer firefighter, said she believes the fire was started by a lightning strike.

"I heard the lightning strike and then the sirens not long after that," West said.

But several people who live across from the church , which is at the corner of 16th Avenue S. and E. 31st Street, said they saw two men run out of the church and jump into a yellow pickup about 15 minutes before the blaze erupted.

"They came running out the front door and they kept looking back," said Michael Stewart, who lives in a duplex kitty corner to the church. "A few minutes later, I saw smoke coming out of the top of the church."

Loutongia Adkins, who also lives at the duplex, said she got a call from Stewart telling her about the two men running out. As she sat down on her porch, she said she noticed the smoke and flames at the western top portion of the church.

"He said that that didn't look right," Adkins said as she watched the futile effort to save the church. "It couldn't have been no lightning strike."

Church history

The church, located at 3104 16th Av. S., began in 1886 about two blocks from its current location as Bloomington Avenue Methodist Church.

But as the area grew, so did the congregation, and by the early 1900s was "crowded out," according to a church history.

The congregation began looking for a place to build a new home.

"Wealthier Minneapolis Methodists, particularly lumber baron Thomas Barlow Walker and fellow congregants at Hennepin Avenue Methodist Church, provided the bulk of the $20,000" to build the new three-story church at 31st Street and 16th Avenue S, which was named after him. Walker and his wife personally donated $3,500, and also paid about half the cost of a $6,000 pipe organ.

The cornerstone for the red-brick building was laid in 1909, and the church was dedicated on March 27, 1910, Easter Sunday, according to the church history.

In 1927, the congregation hit its peak membership in 1927, with 649 members, and 500 in Sunday school. Membership ebbed and flowed over the years, dropping down near 40 at one point.

Great memories

Parishoner deFiebre said he and his wife were married in the church. "It's been a great joy in my life for 41 years," he said. He added that he is the congregation's "song leader" and that the sanctuary's "acoustics are marvelous."
"It had this semi-circular wooden balcony, with about three rows of seating," he said, wistfully.
He said the fire was raging to such an extent that the two water cannons trained on the blaze were having little effect.
He said one of the church's trustees, who lives five minutes from the church, received an alarm from the church at his home and arrived about the same time as firefighters.