- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 14, 2004

PITTSBURGH (AP) — A day after a church fire killed two firefighters, injured dozens more and left a congregation without its spiritual home, the pastor promised his parishioners that they would “rise out of the ashes.”

The Rev. Joseph V. Winsett told more than 300 parishioners of Ebenezer Baptist Church who gathered yesterday at a nearby church that they must not dwell on the deadly fire.

“I’m not asking why the building was burned,” Mr. Winsett said during a ceremony marked by singing and clapping. “I stopped asking questions of God, because you can’t figure out God sometimes.”

Firefighters Richard Stefanakis, 51, and Charles Brace, 55, both of Pittsburgh, died in Saturday’s fire, the coroner said. Twenty-eight other firefighters were injured, including six who remained hospitalized yesterday.

Capt. Francis Deleonibus said that investigators planned to examine the church’s electrical system to determine what caused the fire, but that it could take days to remove all the debris.

Parishioners said they were struggling with the loss of the church, which was founded in 1875 and has deep roots as the oldest black Baptist church in the city.

Jeriel Stirkey, a 71-year-old deacon, was baptized there and recalled playing tag in the corners of the building as a boy.

“I’ve been there all my life. It’s my home,” he said. “It’s the only place I had in my life that they didn’t tear down.”

Firefighters thought they had the fire under control when the steeple collapsed. The debris fell into the building’s basement, where both dead firefighters were found, Fire Chief Peter Micheli said.

Ebenezer has about 2,500 members, about 900 of whom are active, church officials said.

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