GIRARD, Pa – It was a church and a historic landmark for the Girard community, but a devastating fire overnight burned the First Presbyterian Church to the ground.
The first call went out around 3:15am. The first crews on scene reported heavy smoke coming from the church. Within minutes, flames had taken over the entire building, forcing the firefighters to retreat and battle the fire from the outside.
Flames were shooting several feet in the air and at that point, there was not much firefighters could do to save the church.
We were told that by Sunday at noon, firefighters had used half-a-million gallons of water to put out the fire.
The cause is still under investigation.
The A.F. Dobler Hose & Ladder Co Fire Chief, Jeff Gadley, says, “I’ll work with the Girard police chief to see if we need to make it a crime scene and put surveillance on 24 hours until we can get it figured out.”
In the meantime, instead of attending Sunday mass inside the church in the morning, parishioners stood outside watching in disbelief.
The building had been standing since 1892 and was built for about $10,000 at the time. For more than 125 years, the First Presbyterian Church was a stable for the Girard community, sitting prominently on the corner along East Main.
Behind the yellow caution tape and amid the rubble is more than a century of memories. Though the First Presbyterian Church in Girard only has about 100 members, it was filled with rich history.
Parishioner, Gerry Bender, lives kiddy-corner to the church.
She said, “[she] just heard all the sirens and looked out the back window and saw the fire.” Her back window view was filled with memories, Gerry and her husband, Robert, married in the church on July 17th, 1971. The couple had just celebrated their 47th wedding anniversary days ago.
Bender stayed up all night watching the flames collapse the seemingly sturdy brick structure.
Gerry’s sister, Nancy Copeland, lives in Lake City, but the two stayed in contact all morning. Nancy said, “I texted her and I said, ‘you know, how bad is it?’ And she said, ‘I can feel the heat.’ And I thought, well, it’s a brick building, it can’t be that bad. Then she showed me the fire and I said, ‘Oh my gosh…it’s terrible.'”
The flames from the heat were so intense that the siding on the building sitting next to the church, about 100 feet away, has become completely warped.
Chief Gadley said that the heat was so strong, it forced his crew to evacuate.
Gadley also married in the church in 1989. He spent Sunday fighting the flames that were burning many cherished memories to the ground.
Jim Steadman rushed home to Girard from a weekend away when he got word of the fire. He said it was, “Just shocking to see the damage…it looks like it’s been bombed.”
Steadman’s family is deeply rooted in the First Presbyterian Church.
He explained, “My great, great grandfather was one of the founders of this church. James Blair. Five generations of our family were members here, kids were all baptized here…I was baptized here…our roots go pretty deep here.”
Steadman said as for the future of the church, “They were a solid, strong church and they will. They will rebuild. I have no doubt.”
The church that stood before this one was built back in 1832, almost 200 years ago. Tragically, that one also burned to the ground.
The church’s financial secretary, Michael Parenti, was on scene and said that the church does have fire insurance.
Later in the day, demolition crews arrived on site to take down any walls left standing that could be a danger to the public.
An investigation into the cause will continue on Monday.