Bowling Green Fire Department, 1898

Fire Flashback: First Baptist Church, October, 1991

From The Daily News
by Stan Regan

Arson is being considered in a Monday afternoon fire that destroyed the 78 year old sanctuary of First Baptist Church at 12th Avenue and Chestnut Street. Damage to the building, which was gutted by the fire, is estimated at $2 million  to $3 million. Black, yellow and white smoke bellowed out of the dome and roof top outside while hundreds of church members and onlookers gathered on the streets below.

"I don't see why it had to be this church," said Kevin Bradshaw of 1425 Park St., a church neighbor.

Melted lead poured from between stained glass panes illuminated by the neon orange and yellow flames inside while members of the church, including it's pastor, watched the roof collapse into the sanctuary and send cinders, soot and debris flying into the air. One of two building annexes also was damaged by smoke and water, according to Assistant Bowling Green Fire Inspector Richard Storey.  A complete assessment of the damage, including an arson survey, will not begin until the brick and stone facade of the historic 1913 building is safe to enter, he said. That might occur today.

"As far as any arson, there is none that I know of yet," Storey said, "We don't know about the walls collapsing, and nobody's going in there till it's safe."

Little remains of the Roman Revival structure except its native limestone and brick facade. The sanctuary once provided seating for 1,475 people in a setting of wood paneling, stained glass pictorals and huge ceiling dome. What remains today are smoldering embers and memories of the fire that broke out about 3 p.m. Monday.

All three shifts and all but one unit of the Bowling Green Fire Department responded to the fire, leaving Warren County volunteer fire departments to cover possible fires elsewhere and outside the city limits, Assistant Fire Chief Harold Pearson said. Two firefighters suffered minor injuries and were treated at the scene. Utility companies responded to cut off natural gas and electricity to the church. Several nearby homes and businesses were effected by the power outage.

Seventy-five firefighters were aided briefly by students from Western Kentucky University, who helped extend hoses and later remove furniture from two adjoining church annexes, Pearson said. Rick Brock, building superintendant, found the fire on the second floor of the sanctuar, near the baptistry and dressing rooms. Brock tried to contain the blaze but was almost overcome by smoke, he said.

"I shot three fire extinguishers on it and couldn't do any good," Brock said.

Sherry White, a church computer operator, called the 911 emergency number after Brock ran in telling of the fire. Fire alarms were sounded throughout the building. Marilyn Williams, manager of the church run day care, evacuated 116 children ranging from infants to 6-year-olds after Ms. White made an intercom announcement.

"We have fire drills every month, sometimes even twice a month," Ms. Williams said, "I didn't know if it was real or not, but to be safe I began evacuation. We had the last child out in 4 1/2 minutes."

The children were removed to a parking lot and then taken to the church's nearby International House. Firefighters were on the scene within three minutes of receiving Ms. White's call, according to Assistant Fire Chief Randall Gann, who was the shift commander.

"When we arrived, the fire had progressed through a false ceiling below the attic area," he said. "The ceiling area was so high that we couldn't get water in it.

"The ceiling had begun to fall and we had to pull the men back," Gann said. "After 15 minutes, we had to pull all the men out."

City Building Inspector Ron Tabor said he attended the church for 26 years and remembered playing in its attic as a child.

"It was a metal frame structure with wood that was like kindling," he said.

"It's sad," said Ella Willoughby, member since 1943. "People have worked hard on that church ever since its been built," she said.

David Wiseman, also a member, reacted likewise.

"This is just a building that cannot be replaced," he said. "It's a landmark."

However, the Rev. Richard W. Bridges sadi the church has a future.

"I'm really not worried about it," Bridges said. Leveling his finger at the flaming sturcture, he said, "That is a building and that's all it is. A building is not a church; its members are the church. As far as i see it, we've lost a historic building but buildings can be rebuilt." Bridges said.

The church has an $8.8 million insurance policy on the entire church complex, he said. Arson was suspected in fires set at the church about two years ago, but the person suspected was not a parishoner, he said.

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