3-Alarm Fire Damages 170-Year-Old Church in Somers

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On Sunday, Jan. 1, 2012, a three-alarm fire destroyed a portion of the historic Somers Congregational United Church of Christ in Somers, CT. Numerous master streams and handlines were put into operation, but the church became fully involved within 30 minutes of arrival and the roof and steeple collapsed. Accountability was a concern because the incident covered a large area and communications with mutual aid departments were difficult because there was no common radio frequency.

The church, or Meeting House, was built in 1842 with several additions being made over the years. The two-story, Type III/ordinary construction, balloon-frame Meeting House had a 70-foot-high steeple and a 35-foot-high peaked roof covered with asphalt shingles. The interior walls and ceilings were covered with lathe and plaster. The 47-by-125-foot building contained 15,000 square feet.

 

Renovated structure

In 1947, the sanctuary underwent major renovations. The chancel was redesigned with an arch and three steps and one center aisle replaced the original two center aisles. In 1948, a building known as Pilgrim Hall was moved from across Route 190 and connected to the existing church. This two-story building, 25 by 35 feet of Type III construction, was placed on a foundation with a basement. In the 1980s, the 14-foot ceilings were lowered with a new sheetrock ceiling and recessed lighting was installed. Walls were painted, wainscoting was added and new carpet was installed. The five original windows in the building were replaced with eight-foot double-paned windows. A kitchenette was also added at this time. Pilgrim Hall became the church parlor with Hitchcock furniture donated by church members. Six pieces of Hitchcock furniture were salvaged after the fire and are being restored by the Hitchcock Chair Co.

In 1958, the Bugbee Center – a two-story, Type III building measuring 90 by 45 feet – was built as a standalone structure to the rear of the church. The first floor contained five rooms, a chapel and kitchen and the second floor contained seven classrooms. The Somers Co-op Preschool rented two large classrooms on the second floor. The white clapboard building had a center front entrance, two side entrances and a rear entrance. A play yard was on the west side of the building and parking area was behind the building.

In the late 1990s, a two-story, 40-by-50-foot, Type III addition connected the Meeting House to the Bugbee Center, making the facility handicapped accessible with the addition of an elevator. The church offices were on the main floor and the second floor had a large meeting room and a care room for infants. A Memorial Garden was also added in the late 1990s. Granite markers indicate location of burial plots where ashes of church members may be buried. The church buildings had a local alarm system, but no sprinkler systems.

 

Initial dispatch

The Somers Fire Department is a combination department that responds with five career personnel Monday-Friday between 6 A.M. and 6 P.M. augmented by volunteers nights and weekends. Last year, members responded to 627 fire calls and 653 EMS calls. At 11:37, P.M., the department was dispatched for a smoke-investigation call in the center of town. The alarm was upgraded to a first-alarm structure fire on arrival of Ambulance 546, which responded immediately with the on-duty ambulance crew. Somers Squad 246, Engine/Tanker 146, Tanker 246, Tanker 146, Heavy Rescue 146 and basic life support (BLS) Ambulances 546 and 646 responded with 38 firefighters under the command of Fire Chief Gary Schiessl. The Hazardville Fire Department in Enfield responded with Truck 31 and a crew of four on pre-established automatic mutual aid.

Due to the large size of the church, a significant collapse zone was established. Extreme radiant heat was also an issue for firefighter safety. Civilian safety in the church was not an issue at that time of day.

The first-arriving unit, Ambulance 546, reported heavy smoke in the area and heavy fire venting from the basement windows on the D side of the church. Somers Squad 246 laid a 600-foot, five-inch hydrant supply line from Springfield Road and Main Street to side D and placed its deck gun into operation. A 200-foot, 2½-inch attack line was also put into operation at D-side basement and first-floor windows. Somers Engine/Tanker 146 laid a 400-foot, five-inch hydrant supply line from Battle and Main streets to side A of the church and placed its deck gun into operation to protect the D-side exposure. Crews also placed a 200-foot, 2½-inch attack line into operation on the main fire building on the A/D corner.

Hazardville Truck 31 was positioned on side B and set up for aerial master stream operations. Somers Tanker 246 laid a 300-foot, five-inch line from a hydrant at Main Street and Springfield Road to side B to supply Hazardville Truck 31. Somers Heavy Rescue 146 took a position on side A to provide scene lighting and act as the staging area. Somers Ambulances 546 and 646 were positioned on side A and established accountability and firefighter rehabilitation. Due to the advanced fire in the church, no interior operations were initiated.

 

Exposures threatened

The D-side exposure was a main concern from the start of the incident. The two-story, wood-frame residence was built in 1835 and located 56 feet from the main fire building. Radiant heat was causing early-stage combustion on the siding of the exposure. The family of four was evacuated from the residence by firefighters. A 125-gallon propane tank was also on the D side, 56 feet from the fire. The A-side exposure was the Somers Town Hall. This 14,700-square-foot, Type II building was 168 feet south of the fire building and subject to radiant heat that melted siding.

Several additional lines were placed into operation from Somers Squad 246 and Engine/Tanker 146 to protect the D-side exposures. A 200-foot, 1¾-inch attack line was used for flying brand control. Two 200-foot, 1¾-inch attack lines were placed into operation to protect the propane tank. A 300-foot, three-inch line supplied a portable ground monitor to protect the exposed residence and firefighters.

At 11:50 P.M., Schiessl requested a second alarm. The West Stafford Fire Department in Stafford Springs responded with Tower 144, Engine/Tanker 144, Special Hazards Unit 144 and 15 firefighters. The Crystal Lake Fire Department in Ellington responded with Engine/Tanker 242 and eight firefighters. Crystal Lake Engine/Tanker 242 laid 400 feet of five-inch supply line from Somers Engine/Tanker 146 to side D. West Stafford Tower 144 was positioned on the D side for aerial master stream operations and supplied by Crystal Lake Engine/Tanker 242.

The crew from West Stafford Tower 144 cut a large vent hole in the roof, far in advance of the fire, and used their master stream to stop the fire spread into the office area and school. A fire wall consisting of a double layer of sheetrock on each side did not extend through the roof, but also aided in stopping the fires progression. Exterior handlines were also used to stop the fire spread. The section of building behind the main wall of the church was two levels. Incident commanders determined it was too dangerous to send crews into this area until after the main fire was knocked down.

Schiessl requested a third alarm at 12:01 A.M., on Jan. 2. The Ellington Fire Department responded with Truck 143, Engine 143, Tanker 143 and 12 firefighters. The Shaker Pines Fire Department in Enfield responded with Service 57 and Engine 54 for station coverage. Ellington Engine/Tanker 143 laid a 600-foot, five-inch line from a hydrant on South Road to the A side to supply Ellington Truck 143’s aerial master stream. Ellington Tanker 143 hooked onto the South Road hydrant and pumped to Ellington Truck 143. Despite the numerous master streams and handlines in operation, the church became fully involved within 30 minutes of arrival.

At 12:05 A.M., the roof and steeple of the church collapsed. Once the main bulk of the fire was knocked down, crews made entry into the church buildings that had not been destroyed and performed interior fire attack as well as mop-up and salvage operations.

Somers Deputy Fire Chief Frank Falcone declared the fire under control at 1:59 A.M. on Jan. 2. Mutual aid units were released at 2:44 A.M. Somers units left the scene at 8:02 A.M. There were no injuries to civilians or firefighters.

 

Conclusion

The fire damaged or destroyed 9,300 square feet of the facility. Firefighters saved 8,000 square feet of buildings. Somers Engine/Tanker 146 sustained $25,000 in damage due to a blown transfer case and radiant heat. This apparatus failed after the fire had been knocked down. Damage to the church was estimated at $4.5 million. The origin and cause of the fire remains under investigation by Town of Somers and Connecticut State Police fire marshals.

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