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City Church Is Declared  A Total Loss

  • The First Baptist Church in Lebanon, N.H., was engulfed in flames during a fire that broke out late in the evening on Dec. 29, 2016. Multiple departments were called to the three-alarm blaze. (Valley News - Josh Weinreb) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Lebanon firefighters continue to monitor the First Baptist Church in Lebanon, N.H. on Dec. 29, 2016. The church was destroyed by fire late Wednesday night. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/31/2016 12:00:32 AM
Modified: 12/31/2016 12:01:12 AM

Lebanon — Officials at First Baptist Church of Lebanon formally learned on Friday that the fire that gutted the 1870 landmark this week rendered it a total loss, meaning the shell that remains will be dismantled.

That can happen none too soon for fire officials who are concerned about the building’s structural integrity, including a nearly one-ton bell that sits in the heavily damaged steeple.

School Street, also known as Route 120, is closed from its intersection with South Park Street to Kimball Street, and will remain that way until further notice, Lebanon Fire Chief Chris Christopoulos said on Friday afternoon.

“I still have a public safety hazard and I’m not willing to put the public at risk,” he said.

Fire and police vehicles blocked off the entrance to School Street on Friday, and traffic was being detoured along nearby Elm Street.

At issue is the roughly 1,600-pound church bell and steeple officials worry could be brought down by strong winds. Christopoulos was hopeful a crane could be brought in to dismantle the steeple earlier in the day on Friday, but church leaders had trouble finding a contractor to do the work on such short notice.

“We’re being told it needs to come down so we’re trying to do that,” church moderator Keith Davio said outside the building on Friday afternoon.

“The problem now is because of the holidays, getting equipment here in the time frame that the fire department would like to is kind of challenging,” he said, adding a crane potentially could be on scene today.

Otherwise, officials might have to wait until Tuesday before the steeple is down, Davio said.

Lebanon firefighters were alerted to the blaze shortly before 11:30 p.m. on Wednesday night, after receiving reports of smoke in the area. A third alarm was called shortly after, bringing crews from Hanover, Hartford, Meriden, Plainfield, Canaan, Enfield and Grantham to the scene.

Together, they trained hoses on the building for hours, declaring the fire under control around 3:20 a.m.

Davio said church officials met early on Friday with an insurance adjuster, who determined the building to be a total loss. The congregation now is making plans to rebuild from the ground up, he said.

“As far as a fundraising goal, we have not set one yet. We have a good insurance policy which will allow us to rebuild. Once we determine what type of structure we need to suit our current ministry, then we will assess the cost and set a fundraising goal at that time,” Davio said in an email. “Many folks are very generous and we want to ensure any donations are used in the best possible way.”

The building had an assessed value of $754,300, according to city property records.

Christopoulos said investigators with the state Fire Marshal’s Office were on hand on Friday and planned to meet with a contractor to assess what equipment will be needed to safely access parts of the building now considered unsafe.

Fire investigators on Friday also were attempting to gather video from the neighborhood on the night of the fire.

Rob Taylor, the executive director of the Lebanon Area Chamber of Commerce, which is located across the street from the church, said authorities asked if the office building the chamber is in had any surveillance cameras. Taylor said the building, which fronts South Park Street but also extends south along School Street, did not.

“I typically ask for video or pictures to see the progression of the fire and perhaps where the first fire was seen,” state Fire Marshal’s Office Inspector Adam Fanjoy said in an email on Friday night.

Taylor said the loss of the church was a blow to the community, and that First Baptist officials had just put on a new roof and made other improvements.

“They had just finished fixing it all up. It looked immaculate,” Taylor said.

Officials believe the fire might have started in the rear portion of the building on Wednesday, Christopoulos said earlier this week.

Congregants also were in the church on the night of the fire, and held a community dinner between 5:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. City Councilor Karen Liot Hill, a longtime parishioner, said the dinners were a weekly occurrence, and her husband, Andy, used to help cook meals.

Christopoulos said it’s too early for investigators to determine a cause of the blaze, in part because access to the scene is limited by the structural and safety concerns. Much of Friday was spent draining the basement, which was flooded during the fire, and investigators haven’t had access to other portions of the building, he said.

Meanwhile, congregants are mourning the loss of the church and assessing its future in Lebanon. Davio, who has attended services there for 12 years, said Sunday’s service is scheduled for 10 a.m. at the Masonic Lodge at 25 Green St.

“What we are doing beyond Sunday, we don’t know yet,” he said. “We still have some calls out. We don’t know what our permanent solution will be for holding services.”

Liot Hill said on Friday that she’s been fielding emails from community organizations willing to help.

Officials with Listen Community Services, the AVA Gallery and Art Center, and Lebanon Congregationalist and Methodist churches have reached out to open their doors, she said. A fundraising effort to help reconstruct the church also had garnered $1,100 in donations by late Friday night.

“It’s just wonderful to see the outpouring of love and compassion that people are showing,” said Liot Hill, who began attending services 20 years ago as a student at Dartmouth College.

“The Bible is full of a theme of rebirth and I think, for Baptists, this is another form of a rebirth,” she said.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.


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