Everyone is counting their blessings following Tuesday’s bell tower fire at First United Methodist Church Alexander City.
Timing of calls to 911, staffing and extra equipment all played roles in keeping the fire damage to just the bell tower. The timing also allowed for far less water entering the sanctuary. But the fire also was a siren for issues with the city’s water distribution in the area of the church and downtown which could be more than 100 years old.
If the fire had gone unnoticed for another 15 minutes, things could be much different.
“It would have allowed the fire to get large enough to start dropping burning debris down to the ceiling of the foyer,” ACFD fire chief Reese McAlister said. “If it got through the ceiling to the floor, it could have easily gotten into the sanctuary.”
Mayor Woody Baird told the Alexander City City Council the fire greatly emphasized the importance of improving the city’s infrastructure. In the area of the church on Green Street back towards the Broad Street Plaza is the oldest part of the city’s water distribution system. Much of it dates back to the years after the 1901 fire that ravaged downtown Alexander City and destroyed the first church building of First United Methodist Church (FUMC).
“Had the fire gone another 15 minutes the other night before being discovered, the whole church would have burned down and we wouldn’t be able to touch it ,” Baird said. “We wouldn’t have had enough water. That is something that has become acutely aware to us now.”
McAlister was the first on the scene for ACFD.
“My wife Kim was over there,” McAlister said. “She placed a call about the same time another call was coming in. They saw smoke coming from the tower.”
McAlister was already en route to meet his wife who is the director of Jacob’s Ladder.
“After the storms she wanted to see if they had power or had any flooding,” McAlister said. “I get there. I kicked the door and when it opened, it went in then came out like ‘Ta-da!’ I walked in there and there was no smoke or nothing in the sanctuary.” McAlister knew there was fire — there was smoke. He walked through the foyer not knowing the fire was above his head.
“I walked out and looked through the louvers of the tower,” McAlister said. “I said, ‘I see you.’”
Being first on the scene meant McAlister took over incident command. McAlister would call all the shots for everything firefighters did Tuesday night.
The call to 911 had been made, firefighters were on the way and Station 1 is just a few blocks away. But the fire scene presented difficulties.
“It was hard and took time,” McAlister said. “We got the ladder truck there and had to set it up on Semmes Street because of the power lines on Green Street.”
The next obstacle soon arrived as firefighters started to set up the fire trucks to battle the fire. The nearest fire hydrant was close, maybe too close. The first hydrant was at the base of the stairs leading to the foyer below where the fire was burning above.
The brick construction of the tower was completed just before the church built the new building in 1909 after the 1901 fire. The old brick could present a problem. They could crumble and the tower falls, but where?. Would it be into the street covering the hydrant and nearby trucks or would it fall into the roof of the sanctuary. Again the early notice of the fire proved crucial as it hadn’t built up large amounts of heat yet.
But water was a problem. The ladder truck pours 1,000 gallons of water per minute on a fire. It requires a 6-inch supply line. The other trucks on the scene require a 6-inch supply line. Firefighters quickly discovered a problem after hooking the two lines to the hydrant at the base of the bell tower — not enough pressure.
The hydrant is connected to the oldest pipe in the city’s distribution system, some 4-and-a-half inches in diameter. According to city engineer Gerard Brewer it is highly probable those lines have corroded in making them even smaller similar to what galvanized pipes do.
The hydrant on North Central Avenue also presented low pressure.
“Deputy chief Jamey Johnson kept promising he could put it out from up top but I couldn’t get him a good water source up there,” McAlister said. “The ladder truck takes so much water to operate.”
McAlister makes a call to the Adams Water Treatment Plant to increase the pressure in the city’s water distribution system. It normally is at 60 PSI, but Tuesday night it was increased to 80 PSI to help fight the fire. When the pressure was increased, three major leaks arose. The city’s water department spent the next 24 hours repairing the leaks.
The next closest line with any good pressure was several hundred yards away.
McAlister made one other call, the area volunteer fire departments. Tankers from Kellyton, Ourtown/Willow Point and Hackneyville arrived to help shuttle water to drop tanks on the fire scene.
“It helped a whole bunch,” McAlister said.
At one point McAlister said he had 20,000 gallons of water at the scene.
Another call was made and the New Site Volunteer Fire Department brought its fire truck to ACFD’s Station 1 to be on standby for other calls in Alexander City. ACFD had all its equipment at the church.
The fire department was also lucky with staffing.
“We already had guys coming in on overtime with calls during the storm,” McAlister said. “Not long before this fire was discovered, we had a transformer and pole on fire in the area. We had other transformer fires too. This fire was just after we finished those. We had plenty of people. We had about eight at Station 1 to use New Site’s truck for other calls.”
Just over a year ago the bell tower and sanctuary at FUMC were renovated. It left mainly steel and some wood in the bell tower and new roofs on both. The bell tower is narrow but tall presenting another problem.
“The main problem was it was such a high fire I was scared (debris) would fall and hurt my guys,” McAlister said. “One of the speakers fell and it was a reason I called them out.”
The narrow tower meant firefighters couldn’t fight the fire from above with the ladder truck and from below with hoses from fighters who climbed into the bell tower at the same time.
“The reason we took so long was we were alternating fighting it from the inside and outside,” McAlister said. “We couldn’t do it at the same time. I couldn’t let them do anything from the top with anyone in it. It was a long way up there for something to fall.”
Safety of the firefighters was high on the list of priorities for McAlister. He wanted to put out the fire but didn’t want to lose a firefighter either.
“I was very into that; I didn’t want to hurt my guys,” McAlister said. “We blew the horn to call them out. I called them out twice. It was because I didn’t have a good feeling. We knew where the fire was, there was no use in getting anybody hurt over it.”
Early on firefighters tried to prevent damage to the church’s sanctuary. The brick of the bell tower came down to just above the door of the foyer providing a fire wall protecting the sanctuary and its pews, pulpit and organ from fire unless it dropped to the floor and burned along the carpet into the church, but what about all the water being used to extinguish the blaze.
“We built a dam there in the door,” McAlister said. “We used our big heavy canvas tarps and made a dam with them. We put a table behind it. That really saved a bunch of water from going into the sanctuary.”
Less than four hours went by when the last fire truck left the FUMC and the church was still standing.
The FUMC congregation used to meeting in the sanctuary will now meet in the church’s fellowship hall for the foreseeable future. A structural engineer will assess things next week to help determine the next steps to recovery.
Extinguishing the fire could have been done faster but at what cost?
“Some of the best things we did was we took our time and nobody got hurt,” McAlister said. “We fought it inside some then outside some. We alternated them out. We never did it at the same time for safety reasons.”
The fire is the largest ACFD has had to fight in two decades.
“Queen’s Attic was the last big fire like that,” McAlister said. “That was 2000.”
Other key components of Tuesday's success was to already have a fire plan for the church.
“We know the church,” McAlister said. “As long as it stayed in those open spots like that, it was easier to fight. If it would have gotten into an attic or an area like the daycare where it is cut up, it makes it harder.”
McAlister said the department makes regular visits to the larger buildings in the city to have an idea of how to fight a fire if they are ever called to one.
McAlister doesn’t take any credit for the success of Tuesday night.
“The guys did great,” McAlister said. “I didn’t do hardly anything. The community support was great. They brought drinks and wanting to help however they could. It was amazing. We are a tough community.”
Wednesday crews were surveying the damage. Some water did get into the sanctuary and got under the altar and pulpit. Crews placed dryers and heaters in the small basement area under the altar to help dry it out. Carpet in the sanctuary was removed and even more dryers and dehumidifiers used to remove water from the historic chamber.
Thursday city leaders gathered at the municipal complex for an Alexander City City Council work session. Leaders have been looking at the city’s infrastructure and the FUMC fire puts utilities on the front burner.
“Water is fixing to give us a lot of problems,” Baird said. “That was demonstrated Tuesday night when we had the fire, we couldn’t get enough water pressure to get to the top of the steeple.” Baird also referenced the pressure increase and the work it took to repair the leaks caused by the increase.
Lynn Miller is over the city’s water and wastewater treatment and helps guide the water distribution and sewer system.
“The area has one big loop,” Miller said. “You have six hydrants on it but if you hook to more than two of them at the same time, there will be low pressure issues.”
The fire department tests the fire hydrants yearly for pressure and flow, but it is not done when the water distribution system was stressed like Tuesday night.
“Once you pull off so many hydrants, the other hydrants aren’t going to help anymore,” Miller said. “The only way to fix it is through upgrades and larger water lines.”
Department heads have brought the issue up before that major infrastructure upgrades are needed. Miller presented figures for rectifying just the water issues in the city’s oldest part of the water distribution system at Thursday’s work session. But old estimates are no good.
“The first time it was requested it was around $4.5 million in 2005,” Miller said. “In 2016, it was little over $5 million. I can guarantee that we are $5.5 - 6 million the way things keep going up.”
Miller said his current figures are just an estimate.
Currently city leaders are conducting studies to understand the city’s infrastructure needs and the possible utility rate increases to cover much-needed improvements.
Council president Buffy Colvin said she understands why the water pressure is low as it prevents leaks.
“I have complaints coming from District 1 about water pressure being way low,” Colvin said. “I know it's low because we are trying to preserve what we have.”
Miller also reminded the council the age of the water distribution system in the area also presents another problem.
“Keep this in your mind, there is a lot of lead joints out there,” Miller said. “Remember Flint, Michigan — it is a concern to us. We do testing and send it off every month. Our numbers are great but who is to say it couldn’t show up? I just want y’all to be aware that number could go up drastically.”