Saturday April 27, 2013

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- A fire that gutted a South Los Angeles church early Friday will be investigated by a national task force that specializes in arsons at worship facilities.

The blaze broke out shortly before 2 a.m. at the Bethesda Temple Apostolic Church, and city fire officials said it appears suspicious. Eighty firefighters were able to knock down the flames in about 50 minutes.

U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, who represents much of South LA in Congress, called on the local community to "lift up" the congregation in its effort to rebuild.

"In our despair over the damage done to this more-than-60-year-old institution, we are grateful that no one was injured in the blaze," Bass said in a statement.

A task force including the FBI, Los Angeles police and fire, and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is investigating the blaze. The unit was created in 1996 in response to a rash of arsons at African-American churches.

"I’m pleased that a national task force will be working alongside state and local officials to determine a cause for the fire," said Bass, adding that her office will monitor the situation and is ready to assist "in any way possible."

A dog trained to sniff for accelerants is helping in the probe.

The church opened in 1952.