Published in the October 24, 2018 edition

WAKEFIELD — The stately First Baptist Church, 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, was destroyed in a massive fire last night set off by a lightning strike.

Fire Chief Michael Sullivan said that a thunder storm came through town at about 7 p.m., 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.

SHORTLY after being struck by lightning Tuesday night smoke billowed from the 150-year-old First Baptist Church on Lafayette Street as the fire gained momentum. (Maureen Doherty Photos)

Sullivan said that that 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 seven-alarm fire.

Sullivan said that once a steeple is 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.

Sullivan said that 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. 

Robert Pushkar Photo

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.

There were no civilian casualties, Sullivan said, although several firefighters did sustain minor bumps and scrapes in the course of fighting the blaze. There was a group meeting in the church at the time the fire broke out, but all exited the building prior to firefighters’ arrival.

As of mid-morning today, a crane had arrived to dismantle what was left of the church steeple. Since the roof is entirely gone, there is nothing left to support the four walls, Sullivan said, speculating that the walls may have to be knocked down by the crane as well.

Sullivan said that he was listing lightning as the cause of the fire and he said that given the circumstances the state Fire Marshall’s office appeared to be satisfied with that as the cause. 

Sullivan said that Captain Paul Pronco and his first-arriving crew did the everything they could do, given what they encountered. He added that the mutual aid system once again proved its worth, noting that there was no way that a fire department in a town the size of Wakefield could have fought such a fire on its own.

Deputy Police Chief Craig Calabrese said that police officers worked with the DPW to get streets blocked off in order to allow firefighters to do their job. Several other communities sent cruisers to help local police with what became a major traffic operation.

The last church fire in Wakefield was the one that destroyed the old St. Joseph church in 1977.

Flames crackled and early on burning embers were sent at least 200 feet up into the night sky. Smoke from the intense fire could be seen from nearby communities.

On Yale Avenue, people coming from a wake at the McDonald Funeral Home dodged burning pieces coming from the church. Other properties were also rained down upon by glowing ash.

Hundreds of on-lookers crowded onto Main Street in the Square, Common Street and Lafayette Street to watch the firefight and lament the loss of an iconic, century and a half old structure.

Church representatives posted this statement on the First Baptist website:

“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.

“We know that we serve a God who specialized in restoring brokenness and who can bring beauty even from the ashes. So we move into the future with trust, hope, and gratitude.”

The church was also home to the Tall Spire Nursery School, where hundreds of children began their education over the years. 

“I just think of my fellow teachers, whose life’s work has been in that building with the kids from this community and the communities all around,” said Amy Burd, who teaches at the nursery school that operated from the church basement. “We’re all devastated.”