Monday, November 21, 2011
By James Lomuscio
UPDATE Westport’s Saugatuck Congregational Church remained shrouded in acrid smoke and steam minutes before midnight Sunday as firefighters battled a blaze that had sent flames higher than the 178-year-old church’s steeple.
“You can see how bad it is; the roof is all open,” said John Walsh, chairman of the church’s Board of Trustees, as he stood in the rear parking lot.
A firefighter on a ladder continued to shoot water into the hollow of the roof in rear of the structure. Though the high flames had been contained, little flare-ups kept creeping along the roof. The fear was that the fire would spread to the sanctuary.
The fire started around 9:45 p.m. in the rear section of the church which houses classrooms and a fellowship room, according to fire officials.
Shortly before 1 a.m., the Fire Department said the main body of the fire was knocked down and firefighters were checking for hot spots.
At 2 a.m., units from Weston and Wilton were released from the scene. In all, 63 firefighters from six communities battled the blaze. Others sending help were Norwalk, Fairfield, and Trumbull, which supplied a unit to replenish oxygen tanks.
As he stared at the gutted rear roof, Walsh speculated the fire might have started on the second floor.
“It’s extensive,” said Walsh. “And we just completed a major renovation.
“To the best of our knowledge, no one was in there,” he added.
The Rev. Howie Tobak, interim pastor, said that he and his wife Betsy were inside the adjacent parsonage building and packing to leave for vacation when they heard sirens.
“It just looked like fog outside, and I didn’t know it was a fire until the fire trucks pulled up,” Betsy Tobak said.
According to fire officials, a church fire alarm was reported to headquarters at 9:51 p.m.
“You could see the flames from Main Street,” said local resident Sal Liccione. “When I got here, they were past the steeple. It happened very fast, not like an explosion, but it was fully involved.”
The smell of smoke filled the area for miles, and Post Road East had been shut down from Compo Road North and South to Myrtle Avenue.
“Everybody’s here,” said Westport Police Officer Paul Wargo about the units from other towns that came to assist Westport firefighters. “Fairfield Weston, Norwalk, Wilton, and I just heard Trumbull is sending someone up here.”
The state police State Fire Marshal’s Office command vehicle arrived on scene at about 11:30 p.m. Chief Andrew Kingsbury said the Westport Fire Marshal’s Office called in state investigators to aid in determining the cause of the fire.
Lisa Tantillo, a long time congregant, ran up to West on the sidewalk in front of the church and hugged her.
“I saw it on WestportNow and I had to come down and see,” she said. “I was just so upset, I had to come down here.
“You know, your church is your home,” she added. “It’s upsetting. And we were just making preparations for our Thanksgiving feast Thursday.”
Mary Ann West, a spokesperson for the church, said the annual feast last year drew more than 300 attendees, and that this afternoon, people were dropping off food in preparation.
“We had 30 turkeys defrosting in there, and now we’re making alternate plans,” she said.
West said she had already received several offers to hold the event at other venues, though she would not say where.
Thanksgiving aside, West and Tantillo seemed more concerned about the sanctuary. Though flames had not hit it from where they could see, they wondered about smoke damage.
“From here the sanctuary looks okay,” said West.
Firefighters were dousing some flames above the sanctuary early this morning but it was not clear how much damage had been done to the sanctuary.
Posted 11/21/11 at 06:10 AM
As usual, our first responders have shown their exceptional ability in keeping our town protected. Thank you! While it couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Church, I’m sure there will be many others coming to their aid over the holiday as they have so graciously done over the years.
This church has been a “town church” since 1949 when it was moved down the Post Road and the entire town came out to watch. (It made the cover of Life magazine.) They are known for all the help they give to organizations and to 12-Step groups and to local citizens for meals on the holidays. I was up late ordering a gift for our daughter-in-law when I read the news at 1 a.m., and I joined many others in praying that the fire would be extinguished. Love and prayers to everyone who feels that Saugatuck Church is part of their “family”.