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Lightning strike likely sparked fire that destroyed historic Spencer church, official says

Firefighters battled a raging fire at a historic historic First Congregational Church in Spencer.Vincent Alban For The Boston Globe

The historic First Congregational Church in Spencer went up in flames Friday after a fast-moving fire tore through the building on Main Street, toppling its steeple and sending thick smoke into the gray sky.

The fire was reported around 2:30 p.m., a period when powerful thunderstorms rolled through the Central Massachusetts town.

“It appears a lightning strike,” sparked the fire, Spencer Fire Chief Robert Parsons said in an e-mail to the Globe early Saturday morning.

According to the National Weather Service, thunderstorms were reported in Spencer between 2:15 p.m. and 3:15 p.m. Friday. “There were definitely lightning strikes around town during that period,” meteorologist Andy Nash said.


Almost 100 firefighters from about 18 departments responded to the scene of the massive fire that destroyed the white, wood-frame church that stood in town for 160 years.

“The town of Spencer has lost one of its most prominent landmarks,” Selectman Ralph E. Hicks said by e-mail. “For 160 years it served it’s parishioners and, it’s steeple served as a reminder to Route 9 travelers that they has arrived in downtown.”

Spencer firefighters responded to an alarm at the church located at 207 Main St., which is also Route 9. There were no injuries reported.

Crews battled the flames from multiple angles, shooting water from aerial ladder trucks and dousing the sides of the building with hoses. As the fire intensified, firefighters set up a collapse zone around the building.

Video posted on social media captured the dramatic moment when the steeple crashed into the church.

“The steeple came down about 45 minutes after I got here, so it took awhile” Southbridge Fire Chief Paul Normandin told reporters at the scene, according to video broadcast by WCVB-TV.

A firefighter passed a North Brookfield fire truck at the church fire in Spencer on Friday afternoon. Vincent Alban For The Boston Globe

The steeple contained a cell tower, and when it fell, cell service was knocked out to the area, Normandin said.


After the steeple fell, it appeared some walls of the church also collapsed, according to video broadcast on WCVB. Even after the flames subsided, smoke continued to pour out of the burned out church for hours. Fire crews were to remain on the scene through the night, officials said.

The fire is a devastating loss for Spencer, a town of about 12,000 people located about 10 miles west of Worcester.

“This is a heartbreaking loss for our community,” Mary Baker-Wood, chair of the Spencer Historical Commission, wrote in an e-mail to the Globe. “As is true in many New England communities, the Congregational Church was one of the first important buildings erected in the Town and served in both a religious and civic capacity.”

The First Congregational Church went up in flames after the fast-moving fire tore through the building and toppled the steeple. Vincent Alban For The Boston Globe

Warren Burnett of East Brookfield said he and his wife had a baptism at the church. They attended meetings there and she also shopped at its thrift store, he said.

“Me and my wife are distraught over it,” Burnett said.

According to its website, the church was built in 1863, replacing one that had been destroyed by fire the prior year. The building and land is assessed at $1.5 million, according to the town’s website.

State Fire Marshal Peter J. Ostroskey responded to the scene, along with a team of investigators.

The fire marshal’s office sent a rehab unit to support fire crews and other first responders, said Jake Wark, a spokesman for Ostroskey’s office.


Ostroskey also deployed a drone to provide aerial images of the fire to the command center on the ground, Wark said.

State Police assigned to Ostroskey’s office also responded, along with fire investigators, he added.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation.

Kathy McCabe of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.

Claire Law can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @claire_law_. Adam Sennott can be reached at