Pre-dawn fire de­stroys church

No foul play sus­pected in blaze at over 100-year-old ru­ral par­ish in Ch­ester­field

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - METRO - BY MARK BOWES

A small coun­try church that was more than 100 years old burned to the ground Mon­day in far western Ch­ester­field County in a pre-dawn fire that brought stunned congregation mem­bers to the scene to sur­vey the de­struc­tion.

No one was in­jured. The one-story frame church build­ing and base­ment were va­cant at the time.

Ch­ester­field Fire & EMS crews were called at 4:05 a.m. for a struc­ture fire at Cen­te­nary United Methodist Church at 11211 Beaver Bridge Road in Ch­ester­field’s Win­ter­pock area.

“When our units ar­rived on the scene, they were con­fronted with ba­si­cally a build­ing with fire ex­tended through the roof area,” said Ch­ester­field Bat­tal­ion Chief Bryan Swan­son.

Be­cause the church is sit­u­ated in a largely ru­ral area with­out fire hy­drants, fire crews had to trans­port wa­ter to the scene in four tanker trucks — three from Ch­ester­field and one from Amelia. The tanker trucks filled with wa­ter were dis­patched with the ini­tial alarm, Swan­son said.

Fire crews also used a nat­u­ral pond up the road to re­fill the wa­ter tanks as needed, Swan­son said.

“It changes how we do busi­ness, (but) we’re kind of prac­ticed on ru­ral wa­ter sup­ply,” the chief said of the chal­lenges fire crews faced. “It looks and feels a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ent, so in­stead of lay­ing a sup­ply line and fire hose down the road, we just bring in big­ger ve­hi­cles and ba­si­cally set up our own (por­ta­ble fold­ing) pond in the park­ing lot.”

“There wasn’t a prob­lem with wa­ter, it just wasn’t read­ily avail­able,” Swan­son added. The process “takes ad­di­tional man­power and staff.”

Roughly 28 fire­fight­ers were called to fight the blaze. In ad­di­tion to the wa­ter

trucks, four fire en­gines and one lad­der truck re­sponded to the scene.

Church mem­bers be­gan ar­riv­ing at the scene early to as­sess the dam­age and sup­port and con­sole one an­other.

The Rev. Pen­nie Foy, who has led the church for about five years, said the congregation has about 75 mem­bers, with about 30 who show up reg­u­larly for Sun­day ser­vices.

“The church was built in the 1800s,” Foy said at the scene. “We do a lot of good here. We’re hon­estly like a com­mu­nity church, full of out­reach.

“We’re like a fam­ily,” Foy con­tin­ued. “As you see, peo­ple who have gath­ered as soon as they heard are lift­ing each other up and com­fort­ing each other — truly the body of Christ. So even though we’ve lost our build­ing, we have not lost the church it­self.”

Foy said the first thing that went through her mind when she heard about the fire was how the congregation would re­act.

“Many peo­ple have grown up in this church, and so for them it would be a loss,” Foy said. “It’s not the loss of Christ or their be­lief in God, but where they’ve grown up. This is where they’ve gone to church, this is where they’ve served for so many years. There are so many sto­ries — where they’ve been bap­tized, where their chil­dren were bap­tized, where they were mar­ried.”

“So there are so many mem­o­ries here, and for them, it’s like a griev­ing process that we’re go­ing to have to go through,” she said.

Al­though the build­ing — which has 3,000 square feet on the first floor and a base­ment of sim­i­lar size — is a to­tal loss, Swan­son said crews were able to con­tain the fire from spread­ing to two nearby homes and pre­vent a propane tank at the rear of the build­ing from ex­plod­ing.

The cause of the fire has not yet been de­ter­mined. Fire in­ves­ti­ga­tors and a rep­re­sen­ta­tive from the fed­eral Bureau of Al­co­hol, To­bacco, Firearms and Explosives were on site Mon­day.

“We have no rea­son at this time to think it is sus­pi­cious,” said Lt. Ja­son El­more, a fire depart­ment spokesman. “The ATF is in­volved as nor­mal pro­to­col for them and church fires.”

The pre­cise age of the church was un­clear. Foy said it dates to the 1880s, while a marker on the burned-out build­ing says 1916 — but that may not be the orig­i­nal struc­ture. County real es­tate as­sess­ment records for the church only go back to 1947.

“It was just a nice coun­try church,” said church mem­ber Kathi Brooks. “We’re a small congregation. Everybody was friendly, a lot like fam­ily.”

Foy said the congregation plans to con­tinue hold­ing ser­vices but a new lo­ca­tion has not yet been de­ter­mined.

A prayer ser­vice was sched­uled for Mon­day evening at the nearby Bethia United Methodist Church, Foy said.

DANIEL SANGJIB MIN/TIMES-DIS­PATCH

Ch­ester­field fire­fight­ers worked on putting out the fire at Cen­te­nary United Methodist Church on Beaver Bridge Road.

DANIEL SANGJIB MIN/TIMES-DIS­PATCH

The church’s one-story frame build­ing was a to­tal loss, but crews were able to stop the fire from spread­ing to two nearby homes and a propane tank. The pre­cise age of the church was un­clear, but the pas­tor said it dates back to the 1880s and a marker on the build­ing said 1916.

CEN­TE­NARY UNITED METHODIST CHURCH

The pas­tor of Cen­te­nary United Methodist Church in Ch­ester­field said the congregation has about 75 mem­bers, with about 30 reg­u­lars.

Foy

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