March 19--A massive early-morning fire Monday that broke out during a thunderstorm gutted the auditorium of Owensboro's First Christian Church Disciples of Christ church at 700 J.R. Miller Blvd., and quickly spread into other areas of the building. Hours later the fire was still burning, and by midmorning the church had been destroyed.
The fire was still active more than three hours after firefighters arrived, with the Owensboro Fire Department pouring more than 3,000 gallons of water a minute onto the blaze from two ladder trucks and four hoses.
Fire Chief Steve Mitchell said a lightning strike to the church steeple probably caused the fire. When firefighters arrived just before 3:30 a.m., the attic above the sanctuary was engulfed in flames, and it wasn't long before the roof collapsed.
"There was heavy fire in the attic of the main church," when firefighters arrived on the scene, Mitchell said. "The ceiling was already caving in."
Mitchell said firefighters went into defensive mode, because the church has a "large volume of fuel" due to timbers used for the church's construction.
"When we arrived, we did a quick search and determined all the fire was in the attic," Mitchell said. "Just as we got out, it broke through the roof. This is an older building with lots of timber for fuel. It was not safe to fight in from the inside."
The church has been built onto several times over the years, with multiple attics. Firefighters tried to prevent the fire from spreading beyond the main auditorium and moving south into other parts of the building but were unsuccessful, Mitchell said. At that point, the goal became to protect surrounding buildings.
"We are extremely sorry for the loss the church will have, but we were able to save the other houses," Mitchell said.
Five nearby houses were evacuated, Mitchell said -- four along Daviess Street and one on Seventh Street. A power grid was shut down, cutting power to several blocks of homes and Brescia University, because electrical lines can't be active with ladder trucks in use.
The fire at one of Owensboro's oldest churches was the third fire to which city firefighters responded early Monday. The first was a home in the 500 block of Breckenridge Street at about midnight, and the second struck a home in the 2800 block of Tanglewood Drive.
No injuries were reported at any of the fires, Mitchell said. The Breckenridge Street fire is under investigation as to its cause, but the Tanglewood fire was caused accidentally, Mitchell said.
Battalion Chief Steve Leonard of the Owensboro Fire Department likened Monday's fire to the March 1, 1992 fire that destroyed the 116-year-old Walnut Street Baptist Church.
"Because of the design and structure, if they ever catch fire, they are almost designed to burn," Mitchell said. "When the origination point is the steeple, it's actually a lightning rod."
The intensity and stubborn nature of the fire was apparent hours after the fire department began battling it. At 8 a.m., more than 4 1/2 hours after firefighters and equipment arrived from every station in the city, flames continued to shoot above the rooftops of the church's southern portions, even as the fire department showered it with thick streams of water from several directions. By then, the sanctuary was a smoldering ruin.
At 10:45 a.m., more than seven hours after the fire was reported, the southernmost rooftop of the church was still burning. As the roof opened, a ladder-mounted hose directed water straight down into the flames.
"With a fire like this, you have to wait until it comes to you," Mitchell said. "It finally burned through and we're able to get to it. We're finally on the right end of the pendulum on this."
On the sanctuary end of the church where the fire began, the burned-out steeple still stood, topped by a cross. But Mitchell said it would have to come down.
"The steeple has shifted; it's still a danger," he said. "We have a concern with the wind picking up."