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First Baptist Church in Lebanon Consumed by Fire (Story, Photos, Video)

  • Church member David Rataj, left, speaks with Adam Fanjoy of the New Hampshire State Fire Marshal's Office next to 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.

  • Flames shoot from the roof of the First Baptist Church late Wednesday night in downtown Lebanon. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) 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.

  • First Baptist Church at Green and School streets was heavily damaged by a fire late Wednesday night. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) 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., 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.



Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, December 29, 2016

Read Friday's full stories:

***

Thursday afternoon update:

The New Hampshire State Fire Marshal’s Office is inspecting the remnants of a three-alarm fire that gutted the First Baptist Church in downtown Lebanon overnight.

Authorities are awaiting the arrival of a structural engineer to determine if it is safe to enter parts of the skeletal remnants of the building, which was hit by a fire around 11:20 Wednesday night.

The fire was declared under control at 3:18 this morning.

Two nearby homes were temporarily evacuated over concerns the steeple might collapse. Those homeowners have been allowed back in the building.

Church members tell the Valley News they plan to rebuild the church, which dates to 1870.

***

Thursday morning's full story:

The First Baptist Church in downtown Lebanon was lost to flames late Wednesday night, drawing firefighters from several towns out in icy conditions to battle a three-alarm fire that continued to burn late into the night. 

Thick, acrid black smoke obscured the church as firefighters from Lebanon, Hanover and Hartford focused streams of water on its steeple and roof. More flames, visible through the collapsed roof near the church’s rear right side, continued to burn despite efforts to extinguish them. 

Fire Chief Chris Christopoulos said crews had a long night ahead.

“The fire is not under control yet,” he said around 1:30 a.m. from where he was stationed across the street, about 50 feet away from the burning church.

He said he did not yet know what had sparked the fire. Investigators from both the state Fire Marshal’s Office and the Lebanon Fire Department were en route to the scene. 

Shortly before 11:30 p.m., officials received reports of heavy smoke coming from the church, Christopoulos said. A call for a second alarm was placed soon after, when flames began to break through the building, he said.

It was quickly upgraded to a third alarm. 

During the fight, firefighters cut power to the church, located on the corner of School and Green streets in downtown Lebanon, and surrounding area, a precautionary step taken in case the church’s steeple collapsed — something which firefighters feared was likely to happen. A 50-foot perimeter was cleared around the church while crews doused the steeple with water. Part of School Street also was shut down by police. 

The steeple was still standing as of 2 a.m.

Christopoulos said he did not believe there were smoke alarms in the building. Church members who had gathered on the sidewalk at the scene said that a sprinkler system had been installed in the basement.  

Despite the weather conditions — less than 12 hours before a snowstorm was set to wallop the region, the temperature hovered around 28 degrees — the chief said crews weren’t having any issues with water lines freezing.

One firefighter was taken to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center after he slipped on ice and dislocated his shoulder, Christopoulos said, but otherwise no injuries were reported.

He said he did not believe anyone was inside the church when the fire broke out, but firefighters were working to confirm that.

While firefighters were battling the blaze at the church, Christopoulos said, a smaller fire broke out in the basement of a home at 68 Mascoma St. Firefighters were able to extinguish that fire quickly, the chief said. 

The First Baptist Church, a short walk from Colburn Park, has long been a fixture in the city. It was founded in 1860, according to its website, and is protected as a historical landmark in Lebanon. 

The fire at the church drew numerous people out of their homes to witness the rescue effort, including neighbor and longtime parishioner Dan Nash, who smiled wistfully as he watched firefighters train water on the church’s facade. 

Nash, who was married there in 1976 and put three children through the church, said Sunday services saw attendances of about 40 to 60 people and that the parish had been in the process of looking for a permanent pastor.

Rick Pinilla has served as the church’s interim pastor for most of the year, according to the church’s website, and its last service was on Christmas morning.

The First Baptist Church community already has begun to pull itself together: It is planning a meeting this morning to discuss its future, and the nearby United Methodist Church has “been very gracious and offered to share meeting space,” Nash said.

He had heard the building was a total loss, he said, but he seemed confident the First Baptist community would be all right.

“Luckily no one was in there, I hope,” Nash said. “It’s just property.”

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