ASHLAND -- Fire officials say workers replacing gutters on the First United Methodist Church in Ashland may have touched off a fire Friday that did an estimated $2 to $3 million in damage.
Hundreds of stunned people watched as firefighters from many departments battled intense heat, flames and acrid smoke to save a good portion of the 45-year-old structure at 220 Sandusky St. The thick smoke shrouded the church from onlookers just across the street.
Fire officials declined to say what caused the fire pending further investigation. Two employees of Englet Leaf Guard of Macedonia were on a portable lift, removing large copper gutters as part of a $23,000 replacement project just before the fire broke out. The area where they were working was above an 800-amp, 240-volt electrical service line that runs into the north side of the building, where the fire was first seen.
Several church officials reported the workers heard an arcing sound just before flames were spotted. Employees in nearby county offices and a dentist's office two blocks away said their lights blinked momentarily about 11:50 a.m.
Capt. Tom Smith of the Ashland Fire Department said a church employee called to report the fire at 11:54 a.m. The building was evacuated and smoke was coming from three sides of the roof when the trucks arrived. Smith said firefighters made their way to the attic but were forced down to the third floor by the intense heat.
"We got zero visibility on the third floor and the roof and ceiling began coming down," Smith said. "That's when we decided to make it a different attack from the exterior."
Ashland firefighter Doug Hootman of Jeromesville was among those trying to get to the attic to fight the blaze from the inside while fellow firefighters battled it from outside.
"The heat pushed us back," Hootman said. "The second time we couldn't make it past the top of the stairs."
The roof of the three-story structure was destroyed and there was heavy smoke and water damage throughout much of the building.
Fortunately, the sanctuary escaped fire damage, though it won't be able to host Sunday services this weekend.
But services will go on. Scott Williams, First United's director of worship, said a combined traditional/contemporary service will be at 11 a.m. Sunday in Christ United Methodist Church, 1140 Claremont Ave., Ashland.
Williams said he hopes services can be moved back to First United Methodist Church the following Sunday.
Smith estimated the value of the damage is high because "of the building's woodwork and antiques and records that were inside." Smith didn't think the church will have a problem re-using the structure's shell because of its steel framework but added the decision would depend on a more detailed examination. An insurance adjuster is expected to view the damage today.
Four Ashland firefighters were taken to Samaritan Medical Center in Ashland because of injuries, Ashland Fire Chief Mark Burgess said. Dan McFarlin and Scott Cox were treated for heat exhaustion and released. Andy Ferguson was injured after part of a ceiling fell on him but was released. Brian Stichler complained of chest pain and was treated at Samaritan and later at Grant Medical Center in Columbus. A 20-year-old Ashland University student who directed the church's student ministries, Tim Black, was treated at the scene for hyperventilation.
Ashland firefighters were helped by six departments, including engines from Mansfield, Savannah, Nankin and Polk; a ladder truck from Loudonville; and an aerial platform truck from Wooster. Burgess estimated 60 firefighters were there.
The church has about 350 active members, the church's pastor, the Rev. Dan Bilkert, said.
"It's (only) a building," Bilkert said. "It's not the church. The people are the church."
Church treasurer Herb Griffith said he has the church's records backed up on a computer at his home.
Bilkert and church members carried many items, such as computers, musical equipment, historical paintings and a cross, out of the building as a safeguard in case the fire spread to the lower floors.
The first Ashland Methodist Church building was erected in 1838 at a site now occupied by the county courthouse. Before then, Methodists met in local homes.
A second Methodist Church was build in 1847 at the southeast corner of Church and Fourth streets at a cost of $4,000. Years later, that church burned and another one was built at the corner of Sandusky and Cottage streets. Groundbreaking for the present building was Sept. 15, 1957.
Three firefigters were taken to a near hospital for heat exhaustion injuries. Another was take to the hospital for head injury due to ceiling collapse.
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