Nancy Watkins stared in disbelief Friday as firefighters worked to contain a blaze in Red Bank United Methodist Church — her second home for more than 70 years.
“It’s just something that’s been a part of your life for so many years and to suddenly see it like this ... it’s hard,” said Watkins, who grew up in the Dayton Boulevard church, walked down its aisle at her wedding and baptized her children there.
Officials think the fire ignited when lightning struck the roof of the church’s Christian activity center wing around 3:30 p.m.
“It just jarred the place. People heard it from City Hall a mile away,” said the Rev. Jeff Lambert, pastor of the church.
No one was harmed in the fire. Church members said the building was empty.
About a dozen agencies and 50 to 75 firefighters poured into the town to help fight the fire.
With the air temperatures above 90 degrees, firefighters battled heat exhaustion as well as flames. They took turns heading in and out of the building, hurriedly pulling off their heavy gear and grabbing water as soon as their shifts ended. Many lay under tents in the grass, wet cloths on their heads.
Though the church’s sanctuary was spared, Lambert said there is smoke and water damage throughout the building. The Christian activity center — which includes a gym — was damaged heavily.
The church is more than 160 years old and continues to be heavily involved in the community. The activity center was an all-purpose space housing preschool classes, an after-school program for Red Bank Middle School students, an exercise class for seniors and other programs.
Lambert said the congregation will not worship in the building Sunday because it could be weeks before the fire marshal says electricity can be turned back on. The building is insured, he said.
As the church looks toward its next steps, the congregation will band together, Lambert said.
“We’re a church whether we’ve got a building or not. It’s not the structure; it’s the people,” he said. “Who we are is not wrapped up in this building.”