Fire in 137-year-old church is contained to back wall

By Lynn R. Parks

Last Monday, gas that had leaked under the 136-year-old Trinity United Methodist Church west of Bridgeville ignited. But through what the Rev. Steve Hall calls an “amazing set of circumstances,” the church near Dublin Hill is still standing. “If there had to be a fire — and the fire marshal said that there was going to be one — it happened at the perfect time,” said Hall, Seaford. “With the way things happened, I can tell you that the Lord has his hand in this.” The church sustained about $5,000 in damages in the fire, which the fire marshal determined was caused by the gas leak. But those damages, including a singed back wall and a smoked-scented sanctuary, did not prevent the congregation from meeting in the sanctuary on Sunday morning, six days after the fire. The fire started at around 1 p.m., just as painters Lorne Kennedy, Federalsburg, Md., and Elwood Reed, Seaford, were finishing up power-washing the exterior of the building. According to Kennedy, owner of All About Painting, the two, who started work on the church on Thursday, had planned to be finished the power washing on Friday and to start painting Monday. The gasoline-powered power washer was connected to the church’s one outside spigot, which is under the structure. That morning, Kennedy and Reed started work on the south wall of the building. They intended to stop for lunch, but by noon they were so near to being finished that they decided to continue. Around 1 p.m., the power washer ran out of gasoline. The men paused to refuel the machine and to check over their work. “Something smelled like a wood fire,” Reed said. He stood back to check around and spotted smoke curling over the back roofline of the church. The men took off running. Kennedy shut off the valve to the propane tank behind the church and Reed ran to the back wall, where flames were shooting out from under the foundation. Above them, the wall was warm, indicating that flames were also inside the church.
While Kennedy sprayed the flames with the power washer, which by this time had been refueled, Reed ran into the inside of the church. Through a small window, Kennedy, who had doused the exterior fire, passed the power washer hose to him to spray the flames that were shooting up the interior wall. Kennedy came inside to man the hose and Reed, whose cell phone had no signal in the remote location, drove about a mile to his home to call 911. Within minutes, volunteers from the Bridgeville and Greenwood fire departments arrived at the church. By that time, the fire was out. Jack Cannon, chief of the Bridgeville Volunteer Fire Department, said that had the painters not been there, the church would have burnt quickly. “It is just like an old farmhouse, all wood and with heavy timber construction,” he said. “It would have been pretty quick.” Hall said that he is “amazed and thrilled” that his church survived the fire. Equally thrilling, he said, is the string of coincidences that enabled it to survive: The congregation decided to have the church painted. On his first day on the job, Kennedy opened all the church’s basement vents, keeping the gas from building to the explosive point. The painters had not left for lunch. And the power washer was there, was hooked up to the nearly inaccessible spigot and ran out of gas, forcing Kennedy and Reed to stop and look around. On top of that, the church recently updated its insurance coverage. “If this had happened earlier, we would have been covered by a 50-year-old policy,” Hall said. This was not the Trinity congregation’s first experience with fire. The 1867 structure was built when an earlier church, located next door to the current site, burned down in 1864, according to Charles Scott, chairman of the church trustees.

News tips wanted
Call us with ideas for news and features. We're always looking for good stories to share with readers. Call Bryant Richardson at 629-9788.