THE BELL from the old First Baptist Church has been placed in storage. (Jim McBain Photo)
By MARK SARDELLA
WAKEFIELD — Ever since it was pulled from the rubble of the devastating fire that destroyed the First Baptist Church on Oct. 23, 2018, the old cast iron church bell has sat at the front of the vacant former church site at the corner of Common and Lafayette streets, a solemn reminder of the loss of one of Wakefield’s grandest houses of worship.
On Tuesday, the bell was moved to a secure location in the garage that still sits on the site. The move signals the start of preparing the site for rebuilding the church. Fencing and a trailer are scheduled to arrive in the next week, with the official groundbreaking ceremony set for Sunday, March 19.
First Baptist Church member Jim McBain talked about the significance of the bell.
“In the fire, the bell fell into the basement and was found while debris was being moved,” he said. “At the time I had the excavator remove the bell off to the side and later to the front of the lot. The fire had damaged the bell causing a lot of crazing.” (Crazing is a phenomenon that produces a network of fine cracks on the surface.)
“Since 2018, the bell has gone through stress and the crazing has turned to cracks,” McBain added. “There were also two pieces broken off the bell.”
Unfortunately, one of the two larger pieces of the bell that broke off was inadvertently carted off to the dump with other debris from the fire. The remaining broken piece was moved into storage with the main bell.
On Tuesday, a rigging company lifted the bell onto a flatbed then to a forklift in order to move the bell into the garage.
“This is the first step and the start of the rebuild after four years of hard work by the church through tough economic and COVID times,” McBain said.
He noted that the original plan was to locate the old bell on a podium on the corner outside the new church, but given it’s condition this will now be the topic of a future discussion.
A house of worship for generations, home to a nursery school educating hundreds of children over the years and an important part of a classic New England downtown, the nearly 150-year-old First Baptist Church fell victim to lightning strikes on that fateful October night in 2018.
A thunder storm rolled through town at about 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018, and immediately on the heels of a couple of lightning strikes, the Fire Department started receiving calls reporting that the church had been hit. Shortly thereafter, the church’s fire alarm system went off and sent a signal to the fire station.
The first arriving Wakefield crew, led by Captain Paul Pronco, could see flames near the base of the steeple. They immediately started hitting that area with water and were preparing to bring a hose inside the church when the fire suddenly raced up the entire height of the 180-foot steeple. Captain Pronco quickly sounded a second alarm and then a third, in what ultimately became a 7-alarm fire.
Fire Chief Michael Sullivan said at the time that once a steeple is involved, it is very hard to control a church fire. Older churches such as the First Baptist Church tend to have multiple ceilings including decorative false ceilings with voids between the ceilings and the roof. Once the fire gets into that space, Sullivan said, a fire can easily gain a lot of headway before firefighters can even see it or get at it.
“There was just no stopping it once it got into that concealed ceiling space,” he said.
In short order, Sullivan noted, the entire roof of the church was on fire. He said that the dry wood of the nearly 150-year-old church burned ferociously, giving off a high level of radiant heat. He said that the Artichokes restaurant building next door to the church was “steaming” from the heat and windows on the side of that building facing the church cracked. The vinyl siding on an out-building on the church property melted from the heat.
There were three or four hours of active burning before firefighters were able to get the fire under control, and they remained there all night and into this morning fighting hot spots.
Engines and ladder companies came from Reading, Stoneham, Melrose, Saugus, Woburn, Lynnfield, Malden, North Reading, Middleton, Burlington, Peabody, Winchester, Revere, Lynn, Danvers, Lexington and Salem. A total of 20 engines and seven ladder trucks were involved in fighting the fire. Wakefield Firefighter Daniel Paglia came in for high praise for the way he calmly orchestrated the movement of those companies.
Sullivan called the church “a total loss. I don’t see how any part of the church could be saved.” He estimated the damage at at least $1 million.
The church was not equipped with a sprinkler system, Sullivan said, noting that there had been no significant construction at the church in recent years that would have triggered the requirement to install sprinklers. Had there been sprinklers, Sullivan said, it might have slowed the flames somewhat but it still would have been a major fire due to the age of the church. Most churches in Wakefield do have sprinkler systems, he said.
Sullivan said that firefighters used over 15 hydrants in the downtown area, Yale Avenue, Church Street and North Avenue. The DPW boosted water pressure to the area to help get more water on the fire. More than 100 firefighters dumped several million gallons of water onto the fire.
The church was also home to the Tall Spire Nursery School, where hundreds of children began their education over the years.