SAN JOSE (CBS SF) — San Jose Fire Chief William McDonald and a number of city fire fighters have gathered at a hospital to support a firefighter who went into cardiac arrest Thursday afternoon while fighting a three-alarm blaze at a downtown church.

According to Capt. Mary Gutierrez, Frank Ryan, a 15-year veteran firefighter and paramedic, is now in stable condition in Regional Medical Center of San Jose’s Intensive Care Unit, where about 20 firefighters have gathered to support him and his family.

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Fire crews responded to reports of a fire at St. Patrick Proto-Cathedral Parish at 389 E. Santa Clara St. at 11:22 a.m.

KCBS’ Mike Colgan Reports:

According to Gutierrez, the three-alarm fire had smoke so thick that she and other firefighters had to wear oxygen masks when they went inside, where they found what she called, “blackout conditions.”

The adjacent St. Patrick School was also was also evacuated by fire crews, though the structure was not damaged and no students or school employees were injured, Gutierrez said.

Firefighters had the blaze under control just before noon, around the same time Ryan collapsed, Gutierrez said.

According to Gutierrez, heart attacks are the leading cause of death among firefighters.

“We spend much of our lives staying fit for that reason, but it is a cumulative stress from the work,” Gutierrez said.

Gutierrez said that as of 4:15 p.m. some firefighters were still at the church, which had recently been determined structurally unsound.

Around 1:30 p.m., the church’s pastor, the Rev. Peter Huynh, already sensed the damage to the church structure was serious when he met with a crowd of the church’s parishioners who had gathered at the scene’s periphery.

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One such parishioner, Tiem Pham, said he had been coming to the church for nearly 30 years after immigrating from Vietnam.

Speaking wistfully just beyond the police tape surrounding the church, Pham said, “It was old, but it was a beautiful church. Our faith, our soul is in there, and when it’s damaged it hurts.”

But Pham added that he and other Vietnamese immigrants have their own perspective on tragedies like this fire.

“Many of us…raised up in Vietnam, Vietnam was full of war and destruction. And we saw after the war that everything would go back and we would see. We have faith—like that Jesus will come back after death, that’s the beautiful thing about when we see something bad happen.”

Huynh said he had been in his office when someone told him there was a fire. He ran into the church to make sure all the people had escaped and that he hadn’t thought to save any objects from inside.

“Just the people,” Huynh said, “that’s the most important.”

No one but Ryan was hurt during the fire, but Huynh noted that the church was significantly scarred. Besides the broken stained glass windows and the hole in the roof near the church entrance, the area around the altar was badly burned and, Huynh speculated, was the origin of the blaze.

Huynh said there had not been any candles burning on or near the altar.

According to Huynh, the church’s attendees are mainly Vietnamese and will have to gather at the nearby Our Lady of Refuge church until further notice. Those who come for masses in English and Spanish will meet in the gymnasium of the adjacent St. Patrick School.

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