Deputy Fire Chief Greg Harrell has served on the Sedalia Fire Department for more than 36 years and although he remembers portions of every event he has been called to serve, Wednesday evening’s fire at First United Methodist Church in downtown Sedalia was different.
Harrell has been a member and has worshiped at the church for more than 22 years.
“It was a little different last night being here,” Harrell said Thursday evening. “I think after (Wednesday) night and (Thursday), I will have more empathy perhaps than before.
“I always sympathized with anyone who has suffered a loss, but this fire was very personal for me,” Harrell added. “I ushered here on Sunday and Judy (Harrell) and I were married here; the loss of this has made me feel different.”
Harrell and his wife, Judy, were at home Wednesday evening when the call came in.
“I knew as soon as I heard the address where the location was,” Harrell said. “Because I have been a member of that church I was very familiar with the interior of the structure but once I got here I knew it was going to be completely defensive on our part because of the layout of the church.”
For Judy Harrell, the loss is equally devastating, perhaps more so as she is the third generation of her family to worship at First United Methodist.
Her son Miles Steele marks the fourth generation.
“It’s just so hard for me to believe that the next generation, Miles, won’t get to experience everything here that my brothers and my parents and I did,” Judy Harrell said. “We were all baptized here and I have spent all of my life here; I will miss it so much.
“I’m really just numb right now, but my daddy (former longtime Pettis County Sheriff Emmett Fairfax), who is not a man of many words, spoke to me today and his words have given me such a sense of comfort, a peace came over me,” she added. “Daddy said that (the building) survived a purpose, and thank the Lord that he had enough foresight to have us build another church.”
Harrell is referring to the Celebration Center, the sister church to First United Methodist located on 32nd Street in Sedalia. It is there that the congregation plans to meet for worship services for the immediate future.
“We’re resurrection people,” FUMC Pastor Jim Downing said. “The book isn’t closed and we’ll rise out of the ashes.
“The church physically may not be standing but we are still a church,” Downing added. “We will see what will happen because we have put our trust in God.”
Downing, who arrived in Sedalia Thursday around 4 p.m. after his trip to the Holy Land, said he was thankful that no one was injured or killed in the fire.
“I have been here as soon as I got back to town,” Downing said. “I haven’t left the sight of the church since I returned and I cannot tell you what the outpouring of support and the turnout at the candlelight vigil has meant to all of us.
“It shows the heart of our community and proves that Sedalia truly is a community that cares.” he added. “There is no way possible that we can express our gratitude for the outpouring of love from Sedalia and the world means.”
Downing said individuals and churches from as far away as Bangkok, Thailand, have contacted him, offering their support and prayers.
Prayers and support from throughout the community have also been pouring in for members of the Sedalia Fire and Police departments, the Pettis County Fire District and the Pettis County Ambulance District.
“Everyone in Sedalia has been so helpful both last night and today,” Sedalia Firefighter Daniel Hargrave said. “The community has always been top notch for us and always comes out to help and support us in any time of need.”
Hargrave said individuals had provided the firefighters with both drinks and food but also words of thanks.
“It’s been a very rewarding job,” Hargrave said. “I think I have always wanted to be a firefighter since I was a little boy because it has given me the opportunity to help and serve others on what is often their worst day.
“We try to help and make a difference,” Hargrave added. “My dad was a firefighter here in Sedalia for 22 years and we talk to one another after some of the fires, we’ve texted and talked some after last night.”
Hargrave added that a little stays with him and sticks in his memory after each fire or accident he works.
“It’s sad any time something like this happens,” Hargrave added. “I know the loss is great but I also know the real church is the body, the people, and I am so grateful no one was hurt physically.”
Hargrave has been with the department for four years; Mike Hawkins, battalion chief, has served on the force more than 35 years.
“I remember all the big ones,” Hawkins said. “I’ve been at three at the Trust Building and the Thanksgiving fire last year, Otasco (Hardware) and when the Old Missouri Homestead (restaurant in Downtown burned) down. “It breaks my heart any time you hear of something burning down, but especially one Downtown.
“This one is really meaningful because as a small boy my Boy Scout Troop 54 met here,” Hawkins added. “I had a lot of good times here at the church and I remember the chili dinners we used to have here to raise funds for the troop and going to church here as a young man with my mom and dad.”
Hawkins commented on the beauty of the church and its architecture as well.
“It was such a beautiful building,” Hawkins said. “It was just built different with all the hand-cut stone and the woodwork.
“It was one of the only truly free-standing ones left and I will miss the heart and the history of it now that it’s gone,” Hawkins added.
Judy Harrell agreed.
“In a way it is like when they tore the old (Jennie Jaynes) stadium down, you drive by and you know it once was there but it’s gone and no matter what they do with the space it will never be the same,” she said. “I know I will miss the physical building of the church all my life but we have each other and I am at peace.”
Hope Lecchi can be reached at 660-826-1000 ext. 1484.