WAKEFIELD — A 7-alarm fire gutted the historic First Baptist Church here Tuesday night, sending flaming chunks of the white building falling to the ground, and forcing firefighters to attack from multiple angles.
Firefighters first responded at about 7 p.m. to an automatic alarm from the church at 8 Lafayette St. near the town center, said Wakefield Fire Chief Michael Sullivan. Upon arrival, firefighters encountered heavy fire at the front of the building, and the blaze quickly climbed the steeple.
More than 100 firefighters from two dozen communities responded to the blaze, said Sullivan.
A lightning strike is believed to have caused the fire, though it would be difficult to determine a definitive cause due to the extensive damage the building sustained, said Sullivan.
The main roof of the nearly 150-year-old church collapsed and long windows were blown out of the building. Flames licked part of the building’s frame.
The structure was a total loss, and damage is estimated to be north of $1 million, Sullivan said. There were no reported injuries as of 10 p.m., said Sullivan.
“The extent of the fire on arrival was just too great for us to stop it,” Sullivan said at the scene. “It’s a shame, beautiful church, and we feel bad about that but there’s really nothing we could do.”
The fire was reported after powerful thunder storms rolled through Greater Boston, downing power lines. A tornado was reported to have touched down in Lincoln, R.I., according to the National Weather Service.
Scores of firefighters from numerous North Shore communities fought the blaze under a bright moon. The scene, located right off the Wakefield town common, drew dozens of onlookers. With its 180 foot spire, the church is considered a landmark in Wakefield, a town about 14 miles north of Boston.
Interim Pastor Norm Bendroth said he was in Melrose when he heard the church was on fire. He said he could see the church steeple in flames from a mile away.
When he got there he said “the whole placed was engulfed in flames, and the roof collapsed, you could hear the stained glass windows popping.”
About a dozen members of the congregation and other church officials met on the town common as the fire ripped through the church, Bendroth said.
“We just kind of held hands, and prayed, and embraced one another,” Bendroth said.
He said other Wakefield clergy have already offered worship space, and meeting rooms if needed, Bendroth said. They talked about having a community gathering of some kind.
Bendroth described the congregation, which consists of about 100 members, as “salt of the earth people.”
“It’s a devastating loss for them,” Bendroth said.
He said the church will have an emergency council meeting Wednesday night.
“I think the first hour will be spent in prayer just processing grief and fond memories, times there, and beginning to discern what the future holds,” Bendroth said.
He said the congregation will pick up the pieces one day at a time.
“It’s cliché, but they always say the church is not the building it’s the people,” Bendroth said. “The building’s a cradle and it contains those precious memories but it’s the people that are really the true church.”
In a statement posted to the church website Tuesday night, officials acknowledged the destruction of the church, but offered thanks that no one was hurt.
“While we lost our historic building from a lightning strike this week, we praise Jesus that our church community was kept safe. A very big thank you to the many firefighters who did their jobs with excellence, and to the outpouring of support from the community.”
The statement continued, “We know that we serve a God who specializes in restoring brokenness and who can bring beauty even from ashes. So we move into the future with trust, hope, and gratitude.”
Groups including the Tall Spire Nursery School, the Middlesex Concert Band, the Nifty Needles 4-H Club, and Alcoholics Anonymous utilize church space, according to the church’s website.
Matt French, a 32-year-old construction worker who lives four houses down from the church said he was taking a shower Tuesday night when he heard a large boom.
He said he went outside and watched as fire climbed the steeple to the church. He said part of the steeple collapsed into the main part of the church, where the pews would be.
The building is considered a landmark in town, he said, and a day care center is attached to the rear of the building.
People were getting emotional watching the fire sweep through the building, he said.
“It’s old, so it’s going to go up quick,” he said. “It just went up.”
Kieth St. Clair was in a building attached to the rear of the church for a community meeting shortly before 7 p.m. when a fire alarm went off. He said he went outside and said he saw an orange glow in “one little spot of the church.”
“Then all at once, boom,” he said of the blaze.
Firefighters were on the scene quickly, he said, but the fire engulfed the building. St. Clair said he was in shock.
“It really lit up,” he said.
Shortly after 9 p.m., firefighters were still directing at least nine streams of water at the building. Bits of the structure’s frame still glowed orange. The main roof to the structure had collapsed and tall church windows were blown out. The neighborhood smelled like smoke.
Ed Dombrowski, a Wakefield town councilor who lives about two blocks away from the church, said initial reports suggested that lightning strike may have sparked the inferno that engulfed the building.
He said the building was one of the most beautiful properties in town and was a quintessential New England structure.
“It’s an icon of our skyline,” he said. “It’s important we come together as a community and rebuild.”
As of 10 p.m., the fire was knocked down at the front of the church and steeple, but it was still spreading to the rear of the building, where crews were having difficulty reaching, said Sullivan.
“We’re going to be here a while,” he said.
Christian Bruno, a laborer who lives in the neighborhood, said he was at home with his wife and son when they heard a loud bang. His wife looked out the window, then yelled “Oh my God, it’s on fire,” said Bruno. They then watched the building burn.
“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “Unbelievable.”