A CHURCH was gutted and homes had to be evacuated after a huge fire hit Westcliff on Monday morning.
Firefighters were called to the Seventh Day Adventist Church, in Northview Drive, at about 4.15am yesterday as the flames ripped through the church.
However, there were fears the fire could spread to neighbouring houses after the blaze reached the top floor window of the property next door.
About a dozen people were woken up and evacuated from nearby homes as the fire threatened to spread.
Resident Jason Rayment, 38, said: “I just thought it was a car alarm going off, then the guy who lives opposite knocked on the door about four in the morning, he was banging and shouted through the letterbox saying the place next door was on fire.
“I had a quick look around and there was basically an inferno. I knocked on everyone else’s doors."
Jason Rayment. Pictures by Alistair Underwood.
“I heard all the cracking and smashing and got out quick. It was very hot. The flames were as high as our house, and had come through the fence, right up to a window.
“The guy who lives in there didn’t realise what was happening, he thought it was just daylight.”
The five residents of the flats left and waited on the street until the smoke had cleared before going back.
Isabel Ehlers, 47, was told to leave her house with her husband Lennart and their three children, aged 11, nine and eight.
She said: “I could see the flashing lights and my husband said ‘there’s a massive fire next door’ and it was really quite hot.
“We weren’t in any danger really, but it was quite a scary thing to happen. There was a lot of smoke.”
A kind-hearted neighbour opposite put her family up in their house while they waited to be allowed back in.
Sam Barnes, 23, who lives opposite the church, said: “It was a shock to wake up to that.
“The flames were as big as the house next door and you could really smell the smoke, even though it was blowing away from us.”
Five people were examined by paramedics, but did not need hospital treatment.
Fire crews spent nearly an hour and a half putting out the blaze, before leaving the scene at about 6.30am.
They then returned at about 9am to dampen down debris after police spotted smoke billowing out of the church.
A police spokesman said yesterday: “Police have been liaising with the Fire Service over the cause of the blaze and believe that it was started deliberately.”
Anyone who saw any suspicious behaviour nearby at the time or who has any other information of relevance is asked to call DC Mike Buckingham at Southend Police Station on 101 or call Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.
Pastor Trevor Thomas. Pictures by Alistair Underwood.
REGULAR meals for the homeless may be put on hold as the church seeks to repair itself.
Pastor Trevor Thomas, minister at the Seventh Day Adventist Church, in Northview Drive, was still waiting to be allowed to look inside when the Echo spoke to him on Monday.
Members of the congregation contacted him at his Grays home to tell him about the fire.
Pastor Thomas said it was too early to know the full impications of the blaze, but that in the short term its weekly Sunday meals for the homeless and an educational week for children may be stopped.
The congregation also regularly collects for the poor and the needy in other countries, something Pastor Thomas hopes can continue.
The church has hosted between 25 to 45 homeless people for a meal every Sunday between 11am to 1pm, for the last 21 years.
Pastor Thomas said: “I’m afraid I think that will have to be put on hold until alternative arrangements can be made.”
As for the future of the church itself, he said: “I’m still waiting to be able to see inside.
“All I can say is that God is good, he will provide a way for us to go forward, our church is part of the community here, and part of the community of churches in the area.
“I usually find when something of this nature happens local churches rally together and I hope that will be the case here.”
Pastor Thomas said some activities may be moved to congregation members’ homes.
He added: “We were actually just looking into innovative ways we could reach out to the community as well.”
The Seventh Day Adventist Church observes Saturday as the Sabbath. The Westcliff branch has 122 members.