TRIAL BY FIRE

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
The caller told Marion County dispatch smoke was coming from the Hillsboro Mennonite Brethren Church.

It was 3:49 p.m., Sunday, March 7. A date, as at least one by-stander would say later, that would live in infamy.

Within five minutes, the Hillsboro fire department was on the scene, but not even fire departments from 10 communities, between 80 and 100 fire fighters and an estimated 1 million gallons of water were enough to save a beautiful and historical piece of Hillsboro on a windy, spring-like day.

Great tongues of fire continued to shoot forth far into the night. Lesser flames were still evident as the sun came up Monday morning to reveal a scene of devastation.

The huge structure, with an assessed value of $2.3 million, lay in ruins as members of the nearly 600-member congregation watched in disbelief and sadness, but without despair.

“Thank goodness the church is people and not a building,” said Lou Thurston, an HMBC member.

It was a sentiment repeated often as the hours of helplessness slipped by.

By Monday morning, the state fire marshall as well as representatives from the the U.S. Treasury’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were on hand to investigate the cause of the blaze.

ATF officers are routinely sent in to investigate church fires, according to Steve Garrett, Hillsboro City Administrator.

At a 5:30 p.m. press conference Monday, Garrett said investigative authorities had not yet determined the cause of the fire and that their search would be ongoing.

“We knew when we arrived it was a fully engulfed structural fire,” Hillsboro fire chief Ben Steketee said. “There was smoke coming out of the sanctuary and all of the windows were black.”

Steketee said five or six fire fighters were on the scene when he arrived.

“I got the names of our fire fighters that were already inside the structure,” he said. “After about 20 minutes I determined it was just too dangerous to have them inside any longer.

“We then went into a defensive mode, which means we lobbed water on the building from the outside.”

Steketee said at no time did the fire department have an upper hand on the inferno.

“We realized fairly quickly that the sanctuary was lost, so we were just going to try to save the rest of the church,” he said.

Steketee credited the surrounding communities and their fire departments with helping avert an even greater catastrophe in Hillsboro.

“We actually had some departments call in and offer their help before we even called for it,” the chief said. “They heard it on their radios and knew it was something that might warrant others’ help.”

Steketee said the decision to call in reinforcements was on his shoulders.

“I make that call, and it was evident this was a fire that we needed all the help and resources we could get.”

In all, 10 departments responded to the plea for help, but Steketee maintained control of the situation.

“It’s kind of a controlled chaos when you have that many departments involved,” he said. “When resources start coming in, my job changes dramatically.

“Now I have to manage the resources, so first of all I try to figure out where I want them to be and what I want them to do when they get here.”

Garrett echoed Steketee’s assessment.

“Ben was in charge even when all the other departments were here because he was the incident commander on the scene,” Garrett said. “Unless he defers to someone else, he’s in charge.”

Crowd control was provided by the Hillsboro police department, the Marion County Sheriff’s Department and the Kansas Highway Patrol.

“We had 16 officers on the scene,” Hillsboro police chief Dan Kinning said. “Our department had eight officers, the sheriff’s office had four and the KHP had four troopers.”

Adding to the challenge was a persistent wind that fed oxygen to the fiery monster.

“The wind wasn’t really that strong, but the direction it was blowing made us worry about the houses adjacent to the church,” Steketee said. “We made a great effort to save those other structures.”

Monitoring the situation, Kinning said the decision was made to evacuate the residences on the same block south and southeast of the fire.

“We factored in the dangers, such as wind direction and where the embers were blowing, and we determined we needed to take further precautions,” Kinning said. “We also evacuated some people because of the smoke.”

Steketee said a sudden wind shift fueled concerns about the surrounding neighborhood.

“That made the problem even worse,” Steketee said. “At first there were only about four homes in danger, but when the wind shifted we had three more in danger.”

Seeing other structures in harm’s way, Kinning eventually ordered the evacuation of 15 homes.

Steketee said crews were deployed at strategic locations in an effort to provide maximum protection for area residents and a growing crowd of onlookers.

“Marion, Durham and Lehigh were in charge of the southeast corner of the block, protecting homes over there,” he said. “Newton came and was in charge of the north end of the HMBC structure and the houses across the alley and lobbing water on the north end of the church.

“Canton Fire was on the northwest corner and they had a deck gun which they lobbed water on from there,” he said. “We also had a Co-op tanker hauling water and a tanker was stationed on Vogt’s parking lot with Durham sucking water out of that so we didn’t have water supply problems.”

Steketee said also he assigned the Hillsboro brush truck to patrol the area looking for falling embers.

“I asked them to chase them down and put them out,” he said. “That truck is mobile so it doesn’t have to be hooked to a hydrant.”

Due to its close proximity to the burning sanctuary, the home occupied by Beverly Harms at 112 S. Washington eventually caught fire also, but fire fighters quickly extinguished the blaze.

“We don’t know if the house caught on fire because of falling debris or from radiant heating,” Steketee said. “When the roof collapsed on the sanctuary, most of the fire on that end was inside the brick walls of the structure, so the radiant heat wasn’t near as bad after that.

“We felt pretty good about our chances to save the homes in the area at that point,” Steketee added. “We started to let some of the other fire departments go at that point.”

While the danger diminished that surrounding structures might catch fire, Steketee said fire fighters were still trying to save the north portion of the church itself. But it soon became apparent that those efforts, too, would be in vain.

“Once it got into the educational wing, I was pretty pessimistic about our chances of saving the rest of the church,” Steketee said. “The construction of the building and the newly remodeled portion of the church made it difficult to contain this fire.

“Because of all the chases and attics, the fire just had a clear path, and we couldn’t get to it.”

Although the entire structure was considered a total loss, fire fighters still managed to save several valuable items, including computers from both the secretary’s and pastor’s desk, a file cabinet, a “specific drawer the secretary asked for” and a laptop computer and bass guitar owned by youth pastor Rod Jost.

Steketee said the city of Hillsboro should feel fortunate even in the face of tragedy.

“I think we were pretty lucky that only the church and one home were damaged,” he said. “This fire had the potential to cause a lot more damage.”

While the results were not what fire fighters had hoped for, Steketee said the city can take solace knowing the department has the personnel and resources to protect it from future dire-related disasters.

“Our department was trained well for this situation,” he said. “Plus, we have good equipment and dedicated fire fighters.

“The fact that a lot of our fire fighters were in town at the time helped also,” he added. “Our equipment worked like it was supposed to and our volunteer fire fighters did an absolute exemplary job. They were just fantastic.”

Garrett and Steketee also complimented the citizens of Hillsboro for their cooperation, but hoped, should another catastrophe ever arise, people will remember lessons learned from this event.

“For the most part, the people did a decent job of respecting the work the firemen had to do,” Garrett said. “Some of them wanted to stay just a little too close to the fire, but they did move back when asked to.”

Steketee agreed, but said the safety of the citizens is of utmost importance in these situations.

“It’s imperative for the people’s own safety to stay at a safe distance,” he said. “When we’re in the midst of a fire fight, certain hazards come up that we’re aware of but the passerby isn’t.

“Maybe we’ve had time to mark the safe zone and maybe we haven’t,” he added. “In this case there was definitely structural dangers from this fire.”

Steketee said two fire fighters suffered minor cuts battling the blaze.

Garrett said in major disasters such as this one, a coordinated effort is necessary to assure the best possible outcome.

“Marion County Emergency Preparedness coordinates most of what happens during an event like this,” Garrett said. “They kind of go on auto-pilot when these types of calls come in and do what they’re supposed to do.”

Assisting in the effort were fire departments from Hillsboro, Marion, Goessel, Peabody, Durham, Lehigh, Canton, Galva, Newton and Lincolnville.

Additional help was provided by Cooperative Grain & Supply (fuel and water), Ag Service (water) and a host of community volunteers.

Fire fighters stood vigil on the fire throughout the night, keeping any chance of further damage and the possibility of the fire spreading to an absolute minimum.

By Monday night, HMBC leaders had taken initial steps to write the next chapter in their history.

A gathering of members was planned for 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Tabor College cafeteria. Moderator Don Ratzlaff said the focus of that evening would be to provide information as well as opportunities for sharing and grieving.

A prayer meeting for all who would like to participate will be held at 7 p.m., Wednesday, in the Wohlgemuth Music Education Center.

The congregation plans to meet for its first corporate worship service at 10 a.m., Sunday, in the Robert C. Brown Gymnasium.

“We are so grateful for the courageous work done by the many fire fighters, law enforcement personnel and the dozens of local volunteers who helped households in need,” Ratzlaff said.

“We grieve the loss of a beloved building, but we look to the future with a lot of optimism and anticipation. We choose to believe God has given us a unique opportunity to refocus our vision and ministry,” he added.

Ratzlaff said while the congregation will likely rebuild, it was too early even to speculate about plans.

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