Acting Jasper Fire Chief David Clark said he, Capt. Alan Clark of the Jasper Fire Department, who’s also the city fire marshal, and state fire marshals Phillip Freeman and Jim Hannah spent Monday going through the debris left from Friday’s fire and determined that a lightning strike around 7 p.m. Friday sparked the fire.
“When we got there (Friday), we had witnesses in the neighborhood who said they saw lightning strike the church,” Clark said Tuesday, “and we had information from the National Weather Service that there were lightning strikes in the area at that time that kind of correlated with that. Then, after we go up there Monday and finished the investigation, we were able to confirm that it was struck by lightning due to the damage and from the direction of travel of the flames.
“As far as where the direct hit was, we can’t tell because that part of the roof was fully involved when we got on the scene.”
Jasper firefighters were on the scene for more than 14 hours, Clark said. That followed a span of less than an hour where firefighters were dispatched to a traffic accident on U.S. 78 with four injuries and a separate structure fire just off Arkadelphia Road.
Clark said when firefighters arrived on the scene, flames were already visible.
“When we got on the scene, we had 20- to 30-foot flames in the foyer from the sanctuary that had already vented through the roof,” Clark said.
That led to an interior attack by firefighters in an effort to keep the fire from spreading as much as possible.
“We sent a crew in right off the bat, and gave them about three minutes to try to make a change due to the complexity of the fire because there was so much fire already there,” Clark said. “But within about two minutes, we sounded our air horns to get everybody out.”
That, he said, was because the fire presented too much of a danger to the firefighters.
“We then went defensive, and our goal then was to try to keep the sanctuary standing,” Clark said.
Firefighters were able to save much of the sanctuary, which suffered no damage from fire but was left littered with insulation and water-soaked. Clark said firefighters caused the insulation to fall by spraying water on a drop-down ceiling to hold off the fire.
“We put crews in the sanctuary and took the side glasses out because the fire was already coming through the balcony going into the sanctuary,” Clark said. “We cut it off there.”
By doing that, firefighters were able to save a Steinway grand piano that was a special part of the church.
“We learned that there was a piano in the sanctuary that had a lot of sentimental value to the church, so we covered it with tarps and were able to save it,” he said. “Before I left, it looked like all you would have to do is wipe it off and it be OK.”
The magnitude of the fire and the time that it took to extinguish it left firefighters exhausted, Clark said.
“It was a strain on us,” he said. “A large department with 40 personnel would have had their hands full with something like that.”
Clark said 17 Jasper firefighters were on the scene most of the night battling the fire.
“I wish people could have seen at 2 in the morning how dead tired our guys were, but they didn’t quit,” Clark said. “They’d get a drink of water then go right back to work. They worked double-time the whole time we were there.”
Members of the Saragossa Volunteer Fire Department also spent several hours working alongside Jasper firefighters in fighting the fire, he said.
“Early on, I requested extra manpower from Saragossa and they staged at the base of the parking lot and, as we could rest some of our guys they would swap out and go in as relief for us,” he said. “They stayed with us for several hours until we got it under control. They were a really big help and we appreciate it so much.”
Clark said Jasper police, Regional Paramedical Services, the Walker County Emergency Management Agency and wives of many of the firefighters offered support during the long hours the department was on the scene fighting the fire. Numerous church members were there, too, offering support.
“We had so much help,” he said. “We also had people coming up asking if we needed anything that could help us.”
Clark said in just the first 13 days of August, Jasper firefighters have answered 58 calls, including fires, wrecks and medical emergencies.
“The summer months are kind of slow for us, but not this summer,” he said. “This year, the number of calls have been up.”
Clark said it’s hard to express how proud he was of the effort shown by Jasper firefighters during the church fire.
“Words can’t tell you how proud I am of them,” he said. “To see the dedication of our guys and to be proud to work for a municipality like this, and to see that no matter how bad it is, they pull together and come out on top, that’s great. I can’t say enough about them. They’re an elite group of guys.”
Clark said while firefighters were exhausted following the fire, there were no injuries reported.
“To go into something like that and have the end result we did, with no injuries, I was really pleased,” he said.