The cause of the Wednesday night fire that destroyed First United Methodist Church, located at 117 W. Fourth St. at the corner of Fourth Street and Osage Avenue in downtown Sedalia, is still unknown as of Thursday afternoon, and it will most likely stay that way.
Sedalia Fire Department Deputy Chief Greg Harrell told the Democrat the church structure is too unstable to allow any investigators or SFD firefighters inside. An investigator with the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was on scene from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. Thursday to conduct a “basic investigation,” Harrell said.
“The investigator did a survey, took some pictures, reviewed the situation and said it was clean, there’s no problems,” Harrell said. “(ATF) is required by law by that whenever there’s a church fire they have to show up to do a very basic investigation by the justice department. Even if lightning strikes a church they have to be called, is what the investigator told me. It’s a standard, mandatory thing.”
Harrell noted the church is not being called a “crime scene,” despite citizens and other media reports claiming otherwise.
“We’ve been hearing people call this a ‘crime scene’ and that was why ATF was here,” Harrell said. “That was never said by anyone, that’s not why ATF was here. It is not now nor has it ever been considered a crime scene.”
He also said that while arson is not being considered an issue in this incident, they haven’t ruled anything out at this time.
“ATF just conducted a basic investigation. The Fire Marshal’s office can’t do a full investigation because the structure isn’t structurally sound,” Harrell said. “… ATF ruled that there’s nothing they’re concerned with and they felt the same way we did — it’s not safe enough to put people in there. We’re not going to risk ATF guys or Fire Marshal’s deputies or our people. They’re not going to be put at risk to do an investigation, moving things around. Nothing has been ruled out and we will not be able to proceed due to the amount of damage by the fire.”
Harrell said there have been a few spot fires in the structure that firefighters can’t get to, and while there will be a company and engine on scene throughout the night, they are trying to avoid pouring more water into the structure, as sometimes the water streams can move and hit a wall, which can add to the possibility of knocking something down.
He also said another portion of the church’s north wall collapsed around 12:30 p.m. Thursday and that the high winds continue to concern SFD crews. City of Sedalia officials met at 1:30 p.m. Thursday to discuss the situation and decided the church is “definitely a structural liability, a safety concern to the general public,” Harrell said, so the decision has been made to demolish the church Friday morning. The church will be paying for demolition costs.
“When we got on scene (Wednesday night) the building was fully involved so there’s no way of knowing where it started at,” Harrell said. “We can’t do an investigation so we really have no idea of where it started in there. … At this point it’s up to the fire marshal investigator if he wants to do any further investigation.”
Harrell, a member of First United Methodist Church, said he would be attending the candlelight vigil at 7 p.m. tonight at Fifth Street and Osage Avenue with his wife.
City Administrator Gary Edwards said it is unknown at this point how cleanup of the area will be handled, as the area streets are covered in debris and rock from church walls collapsing Wednesday night. He said he thought it would most likely be a combination of the Public Works Department working with whichever contractor is hired to conduct the structure demolition Friday morning.
“Our role is to assure health and safety as it relates to this particular issue,” Edwards said of the city’s role in the situation.
Edwards said the issue of when the area would be open to traffic and citizens again came up during the 1:30 meeting, but that “we don’t know at this point” when that will occur.
City officials and citizens alike have been working for years to revitalize the downtown area and to preserve historic buildings. Edwards said the destruction of FUMC is a “huge loss.”
“It’s a huge loss and that is a significant contribution to the historic integrity of the community and downtown — not just downtown but the entire community,” Edwards said. “It’s a loss to the parishioners and a loss to the community. Something of that nature, we are just very saddened to see such a loss of the community.”
Nicole Cooke can be reached at 660-530-0138 or @NicoleRCooke.