A historical loss for Washington

Published 11:18 am Wednesday, December 31, 2014

JONATHAN ROWE | DAILY NEWS REMEMBERING A LANDMARK: Washington lost one of its oldest structures, First Christian Church, this year to a fire that burned for seven hours and required not only Washington Police and Fire Services but also other area departments.

REMEMBERING A LANDMARK: Washington lost one of its oldest structures, First Christian Church, this year to a fire that burned for seven hours and required not only Washington Police and Fire Services but also other area departments.

In 2014, Washington lost one of its landmark downtown churches in an inferno that brought in firefighters from across the county to battle the blaze. The loss of First Christian Church of Washington is the Washington Daily News’ No. 4 story of the year.

The fire that eventually claimed First Christian Church on East Second Street broke out shortly before 3 p.m. on April 28. Though multiple departments quickly responded to the church to assist Washington Police and Fire Services, the fire was fully involved by the time firefighters arrived, according to officials. It would burn for seven hours, destroying the nearly 100-year-old church and its newly renovated sanctuary. During that time, electricity was shut off to much of downtown, to prevent any electrical contract between firefighting equipment and the electrical lines along the narrow street. As of 8:30 p.m. that night, the fire was contained, but the building continued to smoke, its roofline over the sanctuary visibly sagging; the roof over the rear building collapsed.

In 1891, the First Christian Church made its home in Washington, though the current sanctuary was built in the 1920s on the second and third floor of the church, above a basement level. The educational building was later added to rear of the church in the mid-19th century. Within the last six years, the church underwent a massive renovation, which included work to its mostly wood sanctuary.

“That fire was burning pretty aggressively by the time we got there and we have heavy fire overhead and very heavy smoke conditions — smoke had already been pushed all the way down to the floor,” Rose said.

The conditions inside the building forced officials to make a quick decision to pull firefighters out of the structure altogether.

“What we were worried about was that the overhead was deteriorating so rapidly that we didn’t want to deal with a roof collapse,” Rose said.

Rose explained that the fire was centralized between the exterior roof and the interior ceiling.

“What we had to do, because fire was not burning through the roof, we had to take out the higher windows. Because we had no access to the fire, we had to create openings along the edge of the roof so we could spray into the building. We basically took the fire out from the exterior of the building,” Rose said, adding that firefighters did enter the building with hoses but stayed at the parameter, spraying into the areas with fire.

It was the metal and massive wood timber construction of the roof that prevented it from collapsing — what was collapsing was the interior part of the structure, he said.

“It has a lot of heavy timber, which is actually what held up the roof and the walls: massive block walls and heavy timber construction. That will withstand a lot of fire. Construction now is lighter. Light construction is a lot earlier,” Rose explained. “That building definitely has a lot of integrity in its construction. But only an engineer can tell you how much can be repaired.”

While Washington Fire Department was on the scene first, Rose said that many other departments pitched in the effort: Bunyan and Chocowinity volunteer fire departments came with trucks and personnel; Williamston and Greenville fire departments brought aerial trucks, able to shoot streams of water at an elevated height; volunteer fire personnel came from Bath. While Greenville’s department was initially covering the Washington Market Street fire station in case of any additional fire calls, Clarks Neck’s volunteer department took over that job as Greenville was called to the scene.

But it wasn’t just firefighters who responded to the blaze, according to Rose. The Salvation Army fed responders; employees with Gregory Poole brought in light towers to illuminate the scene once darkness had fallen; F. Ray Moore Company workers brought in fuel to fill up the fire trucks to keep them running.

Though investigators with the state and federal agencies were notified of the fire by Washington Police, Rose said the notification is standard procedure: any time there is a fire with a major loss — Rose guessed this one will count in the millions — the SBI is asked by local departments to investigate. As for the ATF investigators, any time a state agency investigates a fire that is specifically at a church, the federal agency is asked to assist in the investigation, Rose said.

“We had no suspicions about that fire at all, from the department’s standpoint,” Rose said.

Since the fire, the church’s congregation has been moving forward and planning the next steps in its recovery.

“It’s the hardest thing,” said Callerie Horton, who has since passed away. “I happen to be the oldest member of the church — I’m 95. I’ve been there a long time, since they started building the sanctuary upstairs. The building has gone through so much, but my goodness, I’ve been all through that church, crying and laughing and everything. We are disciples and there are three things about being disciples—we love God, we love our fellow man and we serve humanity. Those are the three things we are going to keep doing. We’re going to come back because we are disciples and we disciples work together.”

Over 300 members who belong to the church are not alone, according to Elder F. Ray Moore. There are around 6,500 congregations with almost a million members across the nation that belongs to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The FCC of Washington has received support from regional and national branches of the church.

Rev. Arnold Nelson, Sr. Minister at First Christian Church, Duncan, Okla., wrote a letter to his congregation in response to recent losses suffered by two Disciples congregations — one of those was FCC, Washington. Week of Compassion is the relief, refugee and development fund of the Christian Church Disciples of Christ in the U.S. and Canada. The letter stated: “Both congregations have fresh reminders of important things today. They’re reminded churches are made up of people called by God, meeting in buildings and the church goes on regardless of structures made by human hands. They’re reminded the primary purpose of church is to worship God in all circumstances.”

The letter went on to say that Week of Compassion Interim Executive Director, Johnny Wray, had mailed a Week of Compassion check to FCC of Washington with love and prayers.

The church was able to recover some items in the building and had insurance on some of the property lost in the fire, including a $500,000 organ. The congregation continued holding services at the Red Men’s Lodge in Washington and started the healing process, and thanks to first responders, it was able to save several items from the fire itself, including several unusable items that are still valuable from a historical standpoint, a communion table and a cross, which was restored by member Steve Ainsworth, an experienced wood turner and carpenter.

“To have from a historical standpoint, most of that stuff is being cleaned up,” Ainsworth said. “We’re in a situation where we have a unique opportunity to redefine who we are as a church. As we look forward, we can’t forget where we came from. All these elements are a reminder that we were custodians of that building. Whatever we do in our reconstruction, we will continue to be custodians for those who follow after us. It’s just about making sure that continuity of our history passes into our future. “Morale is very high and everyone is being positive. It’s a time of transition, but I think everyone is taking a real positive attitude and accepting the fact that things are different and we have to figure out things as we go along. All that matters is that we can continue to meet and grow as a church family.”

In the late summer, after the church was named a total loss, the congregation decided to demolish the remnants of the church, and in September, members came to fellowship and say goodbye to the historic building. Church moderator, Milton Dail, said the church is looking to rebuild, but no specific location has been etched in stone. Owning property on the opposite side of Second Street, the church may rebuild there, but Dail says they have considered other locations.

Currently, all that remains of the building is a hill, returning to what it was before the church was built in the 1800s, Dail said. The church has decided to honor the building and the church’s past with a memorial garden or something similar. The contractors were instructed to save certain items throughout the demolition process, including the wording over the entrance doors, the building’s cornerstones, crosses built into the block work under the stained glass windows and any stained glass windows that were not destroyed from the fire. Those items will be used in the new church building, once it’s built, Dail said.

“It’s depressing that we lost the building since we’ve had it since the 1920s, but when you look back, we started in a house on Harvey Street,” Dail said. “Then they built a church on this lot and then when they outgrew that, they built the church over on this lot and added on to it. So through the years, we’ve changed things anyway, so this is just another change that is coming about.”

Dail said that although the building is gone, the congregation’s attendance at services held at the RedMen’s Lodge remains strong. Prior to the fire, the church held a contemporary service at 8:30 a.m. and a traditional service at 11 a.m. Now, at the RedMen’s Lodge, one service is held at 10 a.m.

“Attendance is still holding strong at about 200 each Sunday, so it hasn’t hurt our attendance any, and it’s given us a chance for both the two services to come together and meet as one,” Dail said.

The church purchased property at 120 N Academy St for its administrative functions, and the congregation has used it for men’s and women’s meetings and other subgroup gatherings within the church, Dail said.

“Everything is still going on like nothing has happened,” Dail said. “Just the location has changed. There are some (members) that want to be out here because they want to see it, and there are others who have said ‘Let me know when it’s done…I’ll drive by when they’re finished.’ It’s just whatever each member needed to move on with their grieving — they’ve been here for it.”