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Video: First Baptist’s Steeple Comes Down

  • Steeplejacks begin to take down the burned steeple of the First Baptist Church in Lebanon, N.H., Saturday morning, December 31, 2016. The church was lost to an overnight fire on Wednesday. (Valley News - John Happel) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • A crane removes the tip of the burned steeple at the First Baptist Church in Lebanon, N.H., Saturday morning, December 31, 2016. The church was lost during an overnight fire on Wednesday. (Valley News - John Happel) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Steeplejacks work to remove the burned steeple of the First Baptist Church in Lebanon, N.H., Saturday morning, December 31, 2016. The church was lost in an overnight fire on Wednesday. (Valley News - John Happel) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, December 31, 2016

Lebanon — The city lost a treasured part of its skyline on Saturday as a specialty crew removed the steeple of the First Baptist Church of Lebanon, less than three days after it was gutted by fire.

Lebanon Fire Chief Chris Christopoulos had asked for expedited removal of the steeple out of safety concerns that it or the church bell could topple onto School Street, which also is Route 120, just south of Colburn Park. Concerns about the stability of the structure also had kept investigators from the New Hampshire State Fire Marshal’s Office from entering the part of the building where officials believe the fire started.

Shortly after 10 a.m., two cranes from Laconia, N.H.-based Reliable Crane Service arrived in downtown Lebanon, and around 11 a.m. a company worker and Barre, Vt.,-based steeplejack Jay Southgate were in a manbasket hoisted by one of the cranes.

Using a reciprocating saw, they cut away at the spire and removed its top section by 11:50 a.m. About two dozen onlookers, some grieving, some fascinated by the spectacle, braved freezing temperatures to watch the process.

“I want to cry. I wanted to cry when I heard it had burned down,” said Fran Hanchett, a 70-year-old Lebanon native and president of the city’s historical society. “Lebanon has lost so much of our history. This is another part of our history that is gone.”

Dennis Merrihew, a 65-year-old Lebanon resident who has attended the church for more than 50 years, also mourned the loss of a building where his daughters were baptized and attended Sunday school, and where many people who were “down and out” found help and comfort from community suppers and the food pantry.

“It gets me kind of teary-eyed, because there are so many memories there,” Merrihew said after the top part of the spire was taken down. “It’s sad that (the building) is gone. It will never get rebuilt back the way it was. We are going to rebuild; it just won’t look like this. But we’re sticking together.”

Built in 1870, the Gothic Revival church building was both a landmark and a key provider of social services throughout its history. A church member familiar with its construction said he believed the steeple was about 80 feet in height. Christopoulos said officials used a drone to observe the damage and said it clocked the steeple’s height at 124 feet.

The fire started around 11:20 p.m. on Wednesday night, and flames from the blaze caused a glow in the sky that could be seen by firefighters racing to the scene from Canaan.

A community dinner had been held in the church earlier in the evening, followed by a Narcotics Anonymous meeting.

Christopoulos said investigators believe the fire started on the first floor of the building, and not the basement, which housed the kitchen and heating equipment.

“We are pretty confident we know the area of origin. We won’t be able to get in and start digging it out until (today),” he said.

After removing the spire, Southgate and a co-worker continued cutting away at the steeple, also using crowbars, a chain saw and a hammer.

By 4 p.m., they were cutting the studs and four main timbers of the belfry, and by 4:20 p.m., the second crane had lowered the upper portion of the bell tower to the ground.

Some 10 minutes later, the bell also was safely on the street. It will be temporarily stored at LaValley Building Supply, which offered to safeguard it as church officials, who have said they plan to rebuild, decide their next steps.

School Street had been reopened to traffic by 6 p.m.

“Things are good. We’ll pick up and start the fire investigation first thing in the morning,” Christopoulos said. “We’re making it safer for the public, and we’ll alleviate the inconvenience to the residents and businesses along this stretch.”

The steeple removal project was overseen by Eric Johnson, who works for GC3, a general contractor specializing in the reconstruction of buildings after such disasters. It is owned by GuideOne Insurance, the Des Moines, Iowa-based company that is the church’s insurer.

“I’ve been working on church disasters for 18 years,” said Johnson, who flew in from Iowa shortly after the fire. “It’s interesting. Every one of them is different, and every one of them is a challenge.”

John P. Gregg can be reached at jgregg@vnews.com.