Church parsonage destroyed in fire

JEFF TOBIN and LINDA N. WELLER
The Telegraph
December 11, 2002

ALTON, IL -- A historic Alton church was damaged slightly early Tuesday when its adjacent parsonage was destroyed in its second fire in five months.

Alton firefighters, some coming directly from a massive restaurant fire at the Golden Corral Family Steakhouse off the Beltline, were able to keep the fire from spreading from the house at 507 Mitchell St. to Emmanuel Baptist Church, 509 Mitchell St.

Someone called 911 at 3:25 a.m. to report the fire.

When firefighters arrived at the scene, the porch was fully involved in fire. Flames had swallowed the front of the parsonage, which was used mainly for storage, and had jumped to the roof of the church.

"Our main concern was to get the house fire knocked down to protect the church," said Assistant Chief David Eckhouse of the Alton Fire Department.

Eckhouse said the firefighters used a 2.5-inch hose line that can pump out 300 gallons of water per minute to extinguish the flames. He said it took about an hour to put out the fires at the two buildings; there were no injuries.

Mike Harvey, an assistant chief with the Alton Fire Department, said the "majority of the damage was done to the house, with minimal damage in the church."

Harvey estimated damage to the church at $5,000, mostly to the exterior. The house, which was built only a few feet from the church, was unoccupied. Harvey estimated loss of that structure at $20,000.

Fascia boards, the street-side attic window of the church and part of its roof were burned. The church suffered minor interior damage from the fire and water.

Officers from the Alton Police Department and the Alton Fire Departmentís Cause and Origin Team also arrived on the scene early Tuesday morning, Harvey said.

"There was an arson investigation, but the cause of the fire has not been determined as of yet," Harvey said. "The arson investigation team took some samples from the porch area and will run some tests on them. It could possibly be arson, but weíre not sure yet. This is an ongoing investigation."

Emmanuel Baptistís pastor, the Rev. Stanley Henderson, and a church board member arrived during the fire to assess the damages.

"When they got to the scene, they assured (firefighters) that the front door was locked, but it was open when we got there," Harvey said.

Henderson said he thinks arson is a possible cause but stressed that other causes should be considered.

"When you look at the scene, you think to yourself, ĎWhere is the agent that started this fire?í Because it just didnít jump up and start itself," Henderson said. "But that does not mean it was arson. The investigation is still going, and that should shed more light on this."

Henderson said squatters had been using the home recently as shelter from the cold nights, and he indicated that homeless people could have started the fire unintentionally.

"It couldíve been something as simple as a homeless person trying to stay warm," Henderson said. "It has been very cold the last few nights."

On Aug. 13, there was a fire in the basement of the empty house that caused about $1,000 worth of damage. Fire officials had determined the fire started in a pile of trash and clothes near a door at the rear of the house. A squatter reportedly had been living in the house until church members kicked him out. The building had its utilities shut off.

A cause and origin team investigated that fire, but no arrests followed.

Henderson, former executive director of the Alton Housing Authority, said the congregation is "very small," but he declined to state the exact number of church members. He also said the future of the church at the Mitchell site is uncertain.

"Iím not quite sure how long itís going to take to get everything back to the way it was," Henderson said. "Iím almost sure that (tonightís) service is going to be cancelled, but weíre trying to find ways to continue soon. Weíre just not sure about Sunday."

The church holds services every Wednesday and Sunday, as well as a Bible study class.

The church building also remains without power, and Henderson said AmerenUE had not contacted him to tell him when service employees would return to restore electricity.

"Weíre looking at ways to deal with the smoke damage at this time, but we have several elderly people to consider," he said. "Right now, Iím still talking to (the parishioners) to tell them that everything will be all right."

Henderson said the church was planning to move sometime next year on property it purchased on Oakwood Avenue in Alton.

Both the house and church are owned by Trinity African Methodist Episcopal Church, which was leasing them to Emmanuel Baptist for the use by its congregation.

The Rev. Frederick Gaddy, minister at Trinity AME, said he filed a claim with the churchís insurance company Tuesday.

He also said that he heard arson was a possible cause of the fire.

"Thatís what Iíve heard, as well, but I canít comment any further on it," Gaddy said.

jefftobin11@hotmail.com