“When I could see the flames above the trees, I knew it wasn’t going to be good,” Pastor Phillip Paul Thomas said quietly, recalling what he first thought as he drove toward his church early Tuesday morning.
Thomas, pastor of Bible Baptist Church for the past 15 years, was roused from bed by a phone call to his home from the church’s secretary.
“A member of the church heard the fire call on the (emergency radio) scanner and called the secretary, and she called my home,” Thomas said.
Bible Baptist Church and its Foundation Christian School, both located at 11166 Livermore Road in West Mead Township, were destroyed in the 4 a.m. blaze.
Bible Baptist Church is an independent Baptist church, and Foundation Christian School had 12 students this past school year, Thomas said. The school serves ages kindergarten through 12th grade. Both were founded in 1983, Thomas said.
The church building is located in a wooded area off Livermore Road at the end of an approximately 900-foot-long lane and was discovered just before 4 a.m. Tuesday by a passerby.
While the 60- by 120-foot building once could be seen from the road, all that remained of it Tuesday was the basement and a smoldering pile of rubble. There was insurance on the building, Thomas said.
“We had a prayer meeting this morning over there to thank God no one was hurt,” Thomas said, pointing to an outdoor picnic pavilion on the church’s grounds.
It was the scope of Tuesday’s fire that amazed Chief Rich Sheets of West Mead 1 Volunteer Fire Department. Mutual aid from some 15 other departments had to be called in to help with manpower and water supply to fight the blaze.
“(Crawford County) 911 said it was burning in the back,” Sheets said of the first dispatch of information on the fire. “I live about an eighth of a mile away (from the church) and it was just going. When we got here, it was gone other than the front of the building.”
The chief was surprised there were no injuries, given the scale of the fire. There were a total of 16 fire departments and more than 75 firefighters involved.
“Nobody got a scratch,” he said. “It was a four-alarm fire.”
The cause is under investigation by Pennsylvania State Police Fire Marshal’s Office, which was on the scene Tuesday afternoon. Officials from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are expected to join the investigation Wednesday. By federal law, the ATFE investigates all church fires.
“It’s way, way too early to tell,” Trooper Jon McClain, a Pennsylvania State Police fire marshal, responded when asked what may have sparked the fire.
McClain said nothing had been determined by Tuesday afternoon, and nothing had been ruled out.
Pastor Thomas said to his knowledge no one was at the church Monday, and he was one of the last people at the church Sunday. He and two other members of the congregation were the church about 4 p.m. Sunday to return a lectern.
Church services were held Sunday morning, but the church decided to cancel the Sunday night service due to the upcoming July 4 holiday on Monday, he said.
Bible Baptist Church and Foundation Christian School will be rebuilt, Thomas said, and the church will continue with its normal routine.
It holds its Wednesday night Bible study today at 6 p.m. at its outdoor pavilion and Sunday services at 11 a.m. in the pavilion, he said.
“God brought us through a lot of hardship over the years, surely he can bring us through this,” Thomas said Tuesday at the scene.
Those in the 100-member congregation who were interviewed by a Meadville Tribune reporter agreed, but definitely were heartbroken by what they saw as they looked over the scene.
“It truly is,” Clyde Cornell said when asked if it was devastating for him.
“We’ll carry on. We’ve got a place to use,” Cornell, a 10-year member of the church, said as he motioned toward the outdoor pavilion with his cane.
For Chuck and Pam Wachowiak of Meadville it was like losing a family member.
“We were married here nine years ago,” Chuck Wachowiak said. “It’s a shock. There’s nothing left.”
“It’s an awful, awful thing to have happen,” Pam Wachowiak said, wiping away tears. “God has a better plan, obviously. Hopefully, they’ll find out what happened.”
Firefighters from West Mead 1 were still on the scene late Tuesday afternoon helping to assist in the preliminary fire investigation.
West Mead 1 was assisted in fighting the blaze by West Mead 2, Cochranton, East Mead, Vernon Central, Vernon Township, Saegertown, Hayfield Township, Utica, Blooming Valley, Conneaut Lake, Greenwood Township, Randolph Township, Summit Township and Venango volunteer fire departments and Meadville Fire Department.
Keith Gushard can be reached at 724-6370 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.