Reporting Paul Murnane
NEW ROCHELLE, NY (CBSNewYork) – A massive blaze driven by whipping winds destroyed a church overnight in New Rochelle. The fearsome blaze ripped through the 107-year-old building in the hours after midnight, and it took nearly five hours for firefighters to bring it under control.
The huge fire first blasted through a set of doors facing Boston Post Road, then roaring up into the sanctuary, the bell tower and the roof of Union Baptist Church itself. It turned the stained-glass windows into a molten mess and thick, acrid smoke hung over much of the downtown area.
Several people were reportedly treated for smoke inhalation. A Monroe College dorm had been evacuated for safety reasons.
The fire started around 1:30 a.m. Monday. Firefighters said the blaze rapidly grew to a five-alarm fire. The blaze was brought under control shortly after 7:30 a.m.
“The windows had blown out, the stain glass windows blown out, firemen were inside and then the roof actually caved in. It was a massive banging in and the roof came down into the scene. I swear how those firemen got out of there is beyond my belief. I never seen anything like it before,” said witness James O’Toole.
Firefighters tried to enter the building early Monday morning to fight the fire from inside, but were forced to pull back because of the intensity of the flames.
“The fire was virtually coming across the street,” Fire Chief Raymond Kiernan said.
The current congregation had been preparing a centennial celebration for next year. They’d worshipped there only hours before the fire that gutted the main building and the attached rectory.
Many church members gathered at the site of the fire to witness the damage and to pray. They said they were leaning on each other for support in the tragedy. There were tears, or course, but as the morning wore on their faith began to win out over despair.
“I cried tonight but it’s going to be OK. It’s going to be OK,” said Janice Scanley.
“It was heart, heart-wrenching for sure but I know that God has got us and that definitely calmed me down after a while,” said Jackie Miller.
Their pastor, however, spoke of rebuilding. “The one thing we try to teach is to put our faith in action, and many times you don’t know what kind of faith you have until a challenge comes. So this is a great time. We came together. We prayed. We sang right out here. We will be in worship this week. We’re already looking at a different venue. And we are going to rebuild because this church is an historical landmark,” Pastor Reginald Hudson said.
“It hurts, you know, in our heart. We’ve shed a lot of tears and probably will shed some more but we’re going to use this as an opportunity to demonstrate our faith that with God all things are possible,” he said.
What do you make of Hudson’s attitude in the face of this blaze? Sound off in our comments section.
This isn’t the only church in New Rochelle that has had to confront a disaster. In October, the Pentecostal House of Prayer caught fire twice in nine days.