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"Express Worship" ~ Early Service (8-9 am)

The following account of the evening of July 27 and early hours of July 28 was written by Pastor Goyette

It was one of those hot, muggy summer nights in late July – the 27th to be exact. A series of intense thunderstorms were barging across the Hudson Valley and crashing against the Green Mountains. After work, Linda and I took advantage of the fact that there was nothing to do outside by changing into shorts and T-shirts and spent three hours cleaning and organizing the basement in our house. The project was rather enjoyable in the cool downstairs. With a satisfied feeling, we settled on the couch to share a late dinner. It wasn’t long before the phone rang. An impersonal voice let me know that there was a “trouble light” on the fire panel at the church building. I wasn’t surprised, or particularly alarmed; it wasn’t unusual to get a call from the monitoring service in such conditions. High winds sometimes caused the electrical power in the area to fail or fluctuate. The state of the art fire alarm system in the church kept tabs on the power and a dozen other parameters. If there was a fire it would automatically summon help. A “trouble light” simply meant something wasn’t quite right. Besides, our building had a sprinkler system. It had been installed at the cost of approximately $150,000 and was meticulously maintained.

As I rose from the couch to make the three mile drive to reset the fire alarm panel Linda made the unusual announcement that she was going to ride along. The company was welcome. We didn’t bother changing clothes – just slipped on sandals and hopped in the car as we were. We left wallets and cell-phones – after all, we were going to be back in fifteen minutes…

Nearing the corner of Benmont Avenue and Northside Drive we were passed by a Bennington Police cruiser and a red pickup. Both vehicles had their emergency lights flashing. I still didn’t think much about it as we followed them up Harwood Hill but as we approached the church property we saw that the policeman and fireman were stopping traffic on Route 7A in front of the church. I identified myself as the pastor and drove onto the front lawn. From there I could see the outline of our miracle building against an eerie glow that illuminated the sky behind it. My heart sank as Linda voiced the obvious, “It’s on fire! It’s on fire! Running to the west side we saw the flames licking at the underside of the eaves of the sanctuary as fiery tendrils reached for the shingles.

We were the first ones there except for Janette Johnson who lives in an apartment on the church property, Chris Percey, one of our deacons who lives nearby, and two church ladies working in a downstairs room of the church building. These two ladies saw the lights dim and realized the lightning must have struck nearby but finished their task in a few minutes and only realized the building was on fire when they exited to the back parking lot. I thought of grabbing the garden hose to fight the fire but the west side of our building rose forty feet to the ridge of the gable and the flames were out of reach.

Together, the small group paced and prayed while we awaited the arrival of fire engines. While we waited, a tall individual approached my wife and identified himself as an off-duty state trooper. He asked if she was associated with the church. When she replied in the affirmative he related to her that as he was driving nearby he witnessed a lightning bolt strike the church building. The lightning had caused the power to fluctuate, triggering the “trouble light”. But because the flames were on the exterior of the building the fire alarm system had not called for fire trucks and the mighty diesel motor ready to spring to life and pump ten thousand gallons of water from an underground tank through sprinkler heads in the building remained dormant.

The situation was obviously serious but the fire was relatively small and we were confident that once they arrived the firemen would soon extinguish the threatening flames with minimal damage to the building. Little did we know that several factors were conspiring against our beautiful sanctuary. First, key members of local fire companies were out of town at conventions – one in Pennsylvania and one in Middlebury, VT. We later learned that some of these men in Middlebury, upon hearing of the events transpiring in Bennington, drove speedily to lend their aid. Second, a few minutes after lightning struck our building another bolt hit a derelict house about a mile away and set it ablaze as well. In the critical first minutes, some fire trucks dispatched to help us were diverted to the other fire. Third, the lightning had struck in a diabolically difficult spot to reach – high, set back from the edge and under the eave – difficult to see and hit accurately with the stream of water from a fire hose. Fourth, the church property is beyond the town water supply. This meant that water had to be trucked in. While fire companies from a dozen communities were on site. They struggled to transport sufficient water to battle the aggressive fire. A vicious and frustrating cycle developed – the flames would be beaten back with water and foam. Just when victory seemed within reach the water would run out. Lastly and most importantly, a design element of the church probably meant that the building was doomed from the first moment. The roof of the sanctuary was covered with a panel system that sandwiched several inches of foam insulation between sheetrock and plywood. It turns out that this foam insulation is actually created from butane. One firefighter that night said to me that, “once ignited it is kind of like solid state gasoline.” A lightning bolt packs temperatures in excess of 30,000 degrees – more than sufficient to ignite polyurethane foam. To make matters worse, we had installed an extra layer of roofing called cold-framing. This creates airspace between two layers of plywood. What it did that night was provide a continuous source of oxygen to the burning insulation. Our vaunted sprinkler system never engaged. The fire raging in the roof structure was above the sprinkler heads until it was too late.

As word of the fire spread, church members began to straggle onto the property, some of them walking a mile to get past roadblocks. Finally there was a group of twenty or thirty gathered. They surrounded Linda and me, comforting us. Someone provided a jacked for Linda and a kindly neighbor handed me a large beach towel to wrap myself in against cooling air. The group prayed and sang, amazing some onlookers. We were confident in the Lord’s love, as we pleaded with Him for mercy and help. But God’s plan did not seem to include extinguishing the ravenous flames. I could only take comfort in a handful of thoughts – a verse from Romans 8, “We know God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God and are called according to His purpose.” the clear understanding that it was not the church that was burning, no one was hurt, and I knew our insurance was paid.

As the insulation burned it produced a noxious smoke. Driven by a shifting breeze it forced our group to retreat and relocate on the property several times. By the second hour we realized that, shockingly, the entire sanctuary roof was going to burn. Despite the arrival of fire companies from more than a dozen communities, a huge ladder truck set up on either side of the building deluging the roof with a foam mixture whenever water was available, and the establishment of a command post on the front lawn the fire continued its march. As eave and fascia boards burned over their heads Dave Hickey, our assistant pastor, and one of the fire chiefs backed a pickup up to the trailer holding the large tent belonging to the church and pulled it out of harm’s way. We watched through the large sanctuary windows as large pieces of the timber frame began to burn through and fall, crashing to the floor.

Finally at 3:30 am the insulation had burned itself out. The walls still stood but the sanctuary was open to the sky – smoldering at the edges. Heartsick, tired, cold, and smelling of smoke I searched out the fire chief in charge. I told him I was going home to shower and rest a little before returning to deal with the loss. I asked, “Is there anything I need to know before I go?” He looked at me and replied, “You should probably know that I have ordered the building to be torn down.” He gestured across the large front lawn and said, “The excavator has just arrived.” I looked and could see the 50,000 lb piece of heavy machinery advancing menacingly on our wounded church building. The maw of its huge bucket was lined with steel teeth that now threatened insult to injury. I protested, “The fire is out and the basic steel structure may still be sound.” There was no softening in his eyes as he explained, “I can’t leave it standing – if steel or timber frame pieces fall on someone… there’s liability to the town….” There was no arguing. The fire chief had full authority to do whatever he deemed necessary.

The building had been over-engineered and so well built it resisted the prehistoric-looking machine valiantly but after a lengthy battle the walls of the sanctuary lay on the ground along with the still smoking remnants of the beautiful Douglas fir timbers. Linda and I, the church members who were present, neighbors, onlookers, and over a hundred firefighters and rescue personnel, many with tears in their eyes, watched as the excavator then scraped pews, pulpit, and piano into a ramp and literally drove onto the middle of the sanctuary floor as if to do battle with the two gigantic steel main beams. They had held the roof structure high in the air and still spanned the sixty foot width of the sanctuary. As I gazed on the situation, I remembered that when we ordered those beams there was only one steel mill in the country, somewhere in Arkansas, that rolled beams of this size. Finally, after a titanic struggle, one of the massive beams succumbed to the iron teeth and lay twisted on the pile of rubble.

When the awful deed was done, Linda and I walked to our car that still sat on the front lawn. By the dawn light we drove home, mostly silent. We were emotionally numb and physically spent. We showered, prayed, and fell exhausted, into bed to grab a quick nap.

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