A fire at 10:30 A.M. on a hot June day in Sandersville, Georgia, ignited the roof of the 105-year-old First Christian Church. The pastor, Dale Andrews, happened to be in the church at the time and left to go across the street to the pastorage. When he next looked at the building smoke was billowing out from beneath the roof. Fire engines from Sandersville, surrounding communities and a state prison in Washington County as well as a unit from Hancock County fought the blaze. About 50 firemen pumped 1.24 million gallons of water and fire- suppressing surfactant foam on the structure.
Darrell Lander, the Fire Chief of Deepstep, Georgia, acted as the initial fire boss until he was replaced by a more senior fireman. Fire doors to adjoining wings of the sanctuary were locked, and the decisions were made to not break the churches’ irreplaceable windows and to protect the bell tower, since the fire appeared to be confined to the roof. The flames were allowed to vent through the roof which reduced smoke damage to the other parts of the structure. The surfactant foam allowed the wood to wet and retain some structural strength even though other timbers were burning. This was significant not only because it kept the roof from collapsing and bringing the fire down into the sanctuary below it, but also because structural elements of the sanctuary’s 30-foot-tall ceiling were suspended by steel rods hung from roof beams.
Ambient temperatures were over 90 degrees during the day. Water, cold drinks and food were supplied to the fireman from the town’s restaurants. Two firemen who were overcome by smoke were air evacuated to Augusta. The combined fire crews did an excellent job of fighting the fire and preserving what they could of the old building.
WMAZ TV, Macon’s Channel 13, send personnel to cover the fire as well as church services the following Sunday. These had already been planned as an outdoor event conducted mainly by the laity.
Firefighters were successful in keeping the flames from burning the interior of the sanctuary, but water damaged the walls and over four feet of water accumulated in the basement. This water was pumped out over the next two days.
Still facing the congregation are matters of insurance settlement, having the building inspected to determine its remaining structural soundness and deciding whether to restore, rebuild or reconfigure the sanctuary to make it more functional. The old sanctuary was designed prior to electronic amplification. Its tall ceiling, shaped something like the upper half of the inside of an egg, allowed not only for ventilation, but provided excellent acoustics. Another feature was a pull-down wall which allowed the room to be divided into smaller spaces as needed.
When originally built, the church almost covered an entire corner lot, and church functions took place in the now-destroyed sanctuary and in basement rooms beneath it. Partly because of the confines of space on a small lot, the sanctuary was only accessed by steep narrow stairs which made it difficult to move large objects, like coffins, in and out of the building. In the late 1800s this was not a particular problem since funerals were still often held at graveside or in family homes.
Funeral customs have, and are, changing. Interior services may now be held in a climate-controlled environment in any weather, the older members of the family can participate more comfortably and the ceremony can be recorded for, or transmitted in real-time to, family members in distant places. A redesigned interior could allow for modern conveniences as well as improving the building’s functionality while preserving many elements of the original sanctuary. These radical changes are now possible because the church previously purchased adjoining lots as these become available. These lots allowed wings for a social hall and offices to be added to the original building. These new wings were not damaged by the fire.
What next? The church continues and the congregation and pastor carry on. Outdoor services for Ascension Sunday, celebrating Christ’s ascent to heaven 40 days after Easter, were already planned. These took place with a congregation that regretted its loss, but was thankful that so much of their church had been saved. In coming weeks decisions will be made on rebuilding the church.
In a newsletter written immediately after the fire, Paster Andrews affirmed that although the fire resulted in a loss to the church, he was overwhelmed with the support provided by the community, businesses and other churches who offered use of their facilities. “This is a wonderful place!!!!” he concluded.
I recorded a YouTube video of the congregation’s Ascension Sunday services held two days after the fire. If you have any difficulty in watching it here, you may also view it at: http://youtu.be/ypjyTNNcShA . You can follow future developments at the church through Pastor Andrews’ newsletter at http://sandersvillechristian.org.