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Cause of Fire at Lebanon’s First Baptist Church Unknown; Parishioners, Community Rally

  • 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.

  • Lebanon Fire Inspector Duane Egner, left, and Adam Fanjoy from the the New Hampshire State Fire Marshal's office look over the First Baptist Church door 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.

  • Lebanon firefighter Will Rancourt holds a box of hot coffee and food that a First Baptist Church member who did not give his name brought to the scene in Lebanon, N.H., on Dec. 29.2016. The church was destroyed by fire. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • The First Baptist Church in Lebanon, N.H., is engulfed in flames during a fire that broke out late in the evening on Dec. 28, 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.

  • Firefighters battle a blaze at First Baptist Church at Green and School Streets in Lebanon, N.H., on December 28, 2016. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writers
Friday, December 30, 2016

Lebanon — Fire officials on Thursday began investigating the cause of a three-alarm fire that heavily damaged the First Baptist Church of Lebanon, an anchor of the community for more than 145 years.

Flames ripped through the Gothic Revival landmark beginning around 11:20 p.m. on Wednesday night, a scene that drew dozens of people into the winter cold early Thursday morning to watch firefighters try to save the School Street building, just a block south of Lebanon’s Colburn Park.

“It is so sad,” Lebanon Historical Society curator Ed Ashey said on Thursday afternoon. “So many people got married there, or went to parties or funerals there. It is deep in the hearts in a lot of people in Lebanon.”

Former City Councilor Dan Nash, a parishioner who lives nearby, said he was married in the church in 1976 and attended with his family, including three children.

Nash and others watched early on Thursday as thick black smoke obscured the church. Flames shot up into the air and flickered in the steeple, raising concerns that it would topple.

“Luckily no one was in there,” Nash said of the church. “It’s just property.”

Hours later, longtime Lebanon resident Don Rowell, who was not a parishioner but sang in choirs alongside members of First Baptist, stopped by to see the wreckage of the church, which dated to 1870.

“I am absolutely devastated by this,” Rowell said. “It is a masterpiece of the community.”

Officials on Thursday had hoped to start sifting through the church’s charred remains to determine what caused the fire, but were held back because the building isn’t structurally sound, Lebanon Fire Chief Chris Christopoulos said.

The cause of the fire hasn’t yet been determined — and may not be for some time.

“It isn’t structurally safe enough for investigators to get in and get around,” Christopoulos said Thursday evening.

New Hampshire State Fire Marshal’s Office Investigator Adam Fanjoy, accompanied by Lebanon Fire Inspector Duane Egner, were only able to enter the side doors off Green Street before being forced to abandon their efforts.

Throughout the day, authorities were awaiting the arrival of a structural engineer to determine if parts of the church were safe to enter, but church officials, operating through their insurance company, didn’t have “any luck” finding an engineer, Christopoulos said.

Fire investigators now are awaiting the arrival of an insurance adjuster from Florida. Some decisions about how to proceed might be made today, the chief said.

“We don’t want to see them hurt financially,” he said of the congregation, noting he didn’t want to do something that would violate or void the church’s insurance policy.

In the meantime, a portion of School Street, which also is Route 120, will remain closed. The integrity of the church’s steeple remains a concern, Christopoulos said.

He said he had proposed a voluntary evacuation to a home that would be in its path if it were to fall, but the residents said they wished to take their chances.

The high winds that were to come through with the snowstorm Thursday night raised the chief’s “level of concern.” The amount of snow the Upper Valley was slated to receive also could impact the investigation, he said, though he wasn’t sure to what degree.

“It will slow things down a bit,” he said.

The fire is believed to have started late Wednesday night in the rear portion of the church, the chief said.

Parishioners were inside the church on the night of the fire; they held a community dinner between 5:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., moderator Keith Davio said outside of the parsonage on Thursday.

Davio, who spoke on behalf of First Baptist Church, said he doesn’t know how the fire started.

“We are trying to figure out how to best use this for God’s will and his plan and to serve the community,” Davio said. “In doing so, logistically, we are trying to figure out where do we still assemble and still have church meetings ... there’s just a lot to figure out.”

For now, worship service will be held at 10 a.m. on Sunday at the Masonic Lodge at 25 Green St., just down the road from the church.

The fire began to unfold around 11:20 p.m., when Lebanon firefighters were dispatched to investigate an odor of smoke in the area of School and Green streets. Shortly after, several people called 911 to report heavy smoke coming from the rear of the church, the fire department said in a Thursday afternoon news release.

Fire officials struck a third alarm, drawing a response from Hanover, Hartford, Meriden, Plainfield, Canaan, Enfield and Grantham.

Firefighters manned hose lines for nearly four hours before the fire was brought under control around 3:20 a.m.

One firefighter slipped on ice and dislocated his shoulder, but has since been treated and released from Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. No one else was injured, the chief said.

Two houses that neighbor the church were evacuated around midnight on Wednesday, one because of the threat of the steeple and the other because of water runoff concerns.

Residents were allowed to go back inside around 4 a.m., Christopoulos said.

Liberty Utilities cut the power to the church overnight; as a result, several homes on School and Green streets went without electricity for a period of time.

Several people walked down School Street on Thursday afternoon to catch a glimpse of the ruined church.

One woman didn’t have to walk very far; her home sits directly across the street from the church.

Stephanie Singleton said she stayed up until 3 a.m. watching the fire department battle the flames.

“They did such a good job,” said Singleton, who has lived in her School Street home for eight years. “It was a well-oiled machine. Thank God no one was hurt.”

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcuddemi@vnews.com or 603-727-3248. Amanda E. Newman can be reached at anewman@vnews.com or 603-727-3215.