Saturday, July 19, 2008Lightning Strikes Church's Bell Tower
Amy Ash Nixon
Saturday, July 19, 2008
Firefighters attack a fire in the bell tower.
SHEFFIELD - The historic white clapboard Sheffield Federated Church in the village caught fire Friday morning after its bell tower was struck by lightning, Sheffield-Wheelock Fire Department Chief Marc Brown said.
Firefighters from several surrounding communities, including Glover, Lyndonville and Sutton responded and battled the blaze that started in the cupola sometime around 11 a.m. That's when the first 911 calls came in.
The church, located in the heart of Sheffield on Route 122, could be seen smoking from several miles away. Lightning is believed to have struck the belfry, according to people at the scene, who heard a loud noise. They first believed it was in the woods until smoke was seen starting to billow from the historic church, spreading panic through the village.
Judy Zimmerman, visiting her brother David, said someone stopped at their home across from the church, banging on the door to call 911. And she knows several people called the fire in once the smoke was seen. Observers, including a group of children with binoculars, watched the fire from across the street.
Wilbur Beer, a parishioner who lives in Lyndon Center, traveled over to watch the fire, and said, "It's very sad."
Beverly Frost, who lives nearby, caught photos of the early stages of the fire, and said before she picked up her camera, she helped evacuate children from the day care center on Route 122. The children were taken to nearby Miller's Run School, she said. She "helped to escort the kids to the school."
The Rev. Tim Pittman, his wife, Linda, standing beside him with her arm around him, had few words to put to the feelings he was experiencing, tears welling up in his eyes.
"It's pretty rough," he managed to choke out.
"It's been 10 long years of hard work," Linda said.
Pittman, when asked to comment, said, fighting tears, "I can't put words to it."
Harold Burt was also watching. He said, "I've been the janitor there for 20 years. The church is over 100 years old."
Chief Brown said it was too early to tell about the structural integrity of the church building because firefighters were still tackling the smoke, and flames were still erupting from the walls of the bell tower. The bell had fallen through to the floor, after ringing several times from the water hitting it during the firefighting efforts.
Brown said firefighters had difficultly with water early on in fighting the fire as multiple departments responded, and power had to be cut off to the building to safely battle the blaze.
Water supply improved, he said, allowing firefighters to battle the fire. They were able to poke holes in the belfry and cut into the clapboards to ventilate the fire to try and knock it down.
Firefighters expected to be at the scene much of the day monitoring the site, which state police were helping to oversee.
Paul Spitzer, visiting from Maryland at David Zimmerman's home, expressed frustration at the flow of water onto the fire initially, as did several observers of the fire. They worried about the structure becoming engulfed. The water issues improved and more water was directed on the bell tower and structure.
"It's very sad that they haven't had more water available," Spitzer said.
Karen Rood, who owns a second home in Sheffield, was heading back to Connecticut with her grandchildren when she noticed the fire and stopped to watch the firefighters try to save the church.
"My husband and I go to that church when we are here on the weekends," she said. "I feel so sad about it."
Brown said fighting fires in an old wooden church bell tower "is very tricky." He said the church sustained heavy water damage.
The two-alarm fire saw strong response from the surrounding departments and there were no injuries reported as a result of the fire, Brown said.
The East Burke Fire Brigade and West Burke Fire Department were placed on alert while the fire was fought.
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