Monday, January 16, 2012

Congregation Church Fire - 1941

The disastrous fire that decimated the 170 year old Somers Congregational Church on New Year's Day shows the frailty of our historic New England wooden structures. East Hampton has not been immune to such tragedies. On November 4th a month before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Congregational Church, a mainstay of our Village Center, erupted into flames. Unlike Somer’s fire, our own was not started from some unknown origin. Three painters from the Goodrich Construction Company of Cromwell were using blow torches to soften and remove old paint. Wood beneath clapboards ignited near the northwest corner of the church proper carrying undetected flames throughout the balloon framing. Their job was nearly complete when the workers noticed smoke coming from the belfry where the fire had spread into the attic.

Two of the painters ran across the street to the Barton Drug Company (now Devine Jewelers) to get a fire extinguisher. Paul "Pat" O’Connell, assistant fire chief, in his barber shop next door, went to the firehouse (located on Watrous St.) and sounded the siren twice. He drove the pumper to the church and went back for a second pumper, sounding a 12 alarm alert to which Middletown and Portland fire companies responded. Within 20 minutes the fire had spread through the roof of the north end of the church.

The judgment of the firefighters was to grab hold of ropes hanging from the steeple put up by the painters. With assistance of the gathered crowd, they were eventually able to pull the steeple into the church and away from the parish house; quick thinking that saved the parish house as a steady stream of water from the local mill ponds poured onto the north wall of the church. In 1976, I had the opportunity to climb into the church attic and inspect the Chestnut beams and charred wooden girders that remain not only rock solid today, but a tribute to the firemen who were able to preserve them 70 years ago.

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