Church community pulling together after fire

By Annie Gentile - ReminderNews
Somers - posted Thu., Jan. 5, 2012
The Somers Congregational United Church of Christ after the Jan. 1 fire. Courtesy photos. - Contributed Photo

The new year began on a sad note for members and friends of the Somers Congregational Church, as a fire on the night of Jan. 1 ripped through the main portion of the 170-year-old church in the center of town, reducing the once-majestic building - a focal point in the Somers community - to rubble.

Somers Fire Department Deputy Chief Frank Falcone said neighbors reported smoke coming from the bell tower around 11:30 p.m., and early-arriving units to the scene found a fire that appeared to have started in the church basement. Assistance arrived from members of the Hazardville, West Stafford, Ellington, Crystal Lake and Shaker Pines fire departments.

“[The church] was a very old construction with no sprinkler system,” said Falcone. “The basement was a wide open space with two staircases and a wide open bell tower with dry wood. Everything in there, unfortunately, was of a combustible nature.”

“Sometimes when there is too much head start on a fire, you get past the point of no return, and that was the case here,” said Falcone.

Unable to save the sanctuary, Falcone said fire crews totaling about 100 people focused on saving the church-owned house on the east side of the property, as well as the rear section of the church, which housed office space and a daycare. While the rear portion did sustain some water and smoke damage, structurally it remained intact, officials said. Additionally, the intense heat of the blaze caused some radiant damage to the vinyl siding on the front of the Town Hall building.

“It’s such a tragedy. We feel the whole heart and soul has been ripped out of the community,” said First Selectman Lisa Pellegrini. “The only good thing is that nobody got hurt. Of course, the town will do all it can to help.”

Pellegrini noted that when Somers Congregational was first built in 1842, the town fathers gave the church $300 toward their building fund, asking in return that the church allow town meetings to be held there. “Years later, we’re doing our part to reciprocate,” she said.

Besides a place of worship, where scores of weddings, funerals and social events were held, the church was also home to a food pantry and a thriving preschool, as well as a number of outside groups and community activities.

At a special meeting held Jan. 3 at Town Hall, church leaders gathered to determine how to move forward in their restoration efforts and how they would continue regular church operations. There was some good news to report - namely that the building and its contents were well-insured and also that the fire marshal had retrieved the bell from the rubble.

Anne Kirkpatrick, church moderator, reported that worship services for the month of January will be held at 10 a.m. in the Town Hall auditorium, the food pantry will reopen in the lower level of Town Hall, scheduled blood drives will also be moved to Town Hall, and all activities of the church will continue, albeit with a shift to alternate locations for the time being. Additionally, Scot Stanton, chairperson of Boy Scout Troop 387, offered the use of the local Scout Hall for storage space.

A necessary chore, but an emotional one nevertheless, Kirkpatrick called on committee leaders to begin the arduous task of inventorying all that was lost in the blaze - from the large-ticket items like computers and office furniture to the small, but spiritually and emotionally significant ones such as handmade pageant costumes that were consumed by the fire.

The Rev. Dr. Barry Cass, the church’s pastor, said while it is too early to put a number on things, he would estimate the loss to be between $4 and $5 million, with the church organ alone being valued at about half a million dollars.

Cass added that he has been in contact with Sgt. Jose Claudio of the State Police in Somers, and that while the State Fire Marshal’s office has found the cause of the fire to be undetermined and police dogs were unable to sniff out any accelerant, they have been investigating the fire and interviewing “people of interest.”

In his prayer at the meeting, Cass acknowledged feelings of being alternately overwhelmed, saddened, stressed and stretched, but that a positive message could also be taken from the experience.

“In these days it seems all of Somers have become friends of our church,” said Cass. “We are grateful.”

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