Thursday, June 11, 2009

Fire Destorys Century-Old Church

Maspeth Congregants Devastated over Sudden Loss

By Conor Greene

Local residents and devastated congregants of the Maspeth United Methodist Church woke up Tuesday morning to news that the 102-year-old church was destroyed in an overnight fire.

The church, at 58th Avenue near 66th Street, was gutted during the two-alarm fire, which was reported at 4:30 a.m. by a neighbor who smelled smoke while taking out the garbage less than a half block from the church. Firefighters from Engine 288 reached the scene in less than three minutes, but were unable to prevent the blaze from gutting the church sanctuary. Firefighters were forced to evacuate the building at 5 a.m., and needed three hours to bring it under control. Nine firefighters suffered minor injuries.

While the FDNY is still investigating the cause of the fire, the church’s pastor and neighbors speculated that the wooden structure might have been struck by lightening as heavy storms passed through the area at about the time the fire started.

“I’m devastated – it’s very surreal,” said one congregant who stood watching as firefighters continued to douse the building with water, hours after the blaze had been brought under control. “I couldn’t believe it [and] had a good cry,” said the woman, who declined to give her name.

Aside as serving as home for the 155-year-old congregation, which has dwindled over the years and now attracts about 20 worshippers each week, the building hosted local groups including about 175 Girl Scouts who meet there weekly, Alcoholics Anonymous and yoga classes. “It’s a community church for so many things,” said the distraught congregant, who added that she was married there. “This church really means a lot to us.”

Pastor Avelio de Leon, who has been with the church for the past 14 years, was asleep in the parsonage next door when the fire started. His wife awoke at about 3 a.m. after hearing banging and thought someone was breaking into her car. Noticing nothing unusual, the pastor went back to sleep. He woke up 45 minutes later to the sound of sirens approaching the area, at which point he realized the church was on fire.

“I hope we will be able to regroup and rebuild the church,” he said. “The Bible says that God works in mysterious ways so maybe the people will be strengthened and become more spiritual.” The pastor said the fire started in the rear of the roof, which initially gave him home the building could be spared. However, witnesses said that firefighters who initially entered the building were forced back out due to the intense heat. “I’m disappointed that it’s a loss,” he said. “Of course, they [the congregants] are devastated.”

While next door neighbor Frank Santamaria’s home wasn’t damaged in the fire, he was forced out of his house because the church was in danger of collapsing. City Department of Building crews were on scene to coordinate the building’s demolishment, which was expected to be completed later that same day. After the fire was completely extinguished, firefighters helped the pastor and congregants recover items from inside the building.

“I was up with the thunder and then went to sleep. I smelled smoke, and the next thing you know, it was engulfed,” said Santamaria. The first crews on the scene made it about 75 feet into the basement before retreating due to the heat, he said. “It was hectic, but as usual the fire department was under control. They knew exactly what they were doing.”

Once the firefighters determined that there were no victims inside the church, the set up a perimeter to prevent the flames from spreading to nearby homes. Santamaria was counting his blessings that the wind was blowing in the right direction. “Ninety-nine out of one hundred, it’s coming this way,” he said.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) arrived at the fire scene and helped with the effort to preserve artifacts. She also used the opportunity to rip the FDNY and mayor for threatening to close firehouses due to budget cuts. “While the church will be completely destroyed, we must come together as a community, rebuild a new church, and we will come out of this great loss stronger and closer as a community.

“I believe this is another example of why we must fight to keep fire companies open,” said Crowley. “I urge Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta and Mayor Bloomberg to immediately identify the locations of the 12 companies slated to close, along with the criteria and data used to make those determinations…”

Firefighters continue to douse the flames at Maspeth United Methodist Church as the congregation’s pastor speaks to reporters. The Forum Newsgroup/photos by CONOR GREENE

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