Why firefighters could not save the huge South Jersey church destroyed by fire
FLORENCE – The size and design of a large church here hampered firefighting-efforts at an eight-alarm blaze, according to a local fire official.
Water supply also was a challenge at Fountain of Life Center, which is in a rural area without fire hydrants, said Robert Tharp, the administrator of Florence’s fire district.
More than 50 fire departments, fire companies and agencies responded to the blaze at a complex with a large church, a private school and other buildings, Burlington County's commissioners said in a statement Tuesday.
More than 200 firefighters were on scene battling the inferno, officials said.
They noted it was Burlington County’s largest fire emergency since 2013, when an 11-alarm blaze destroyed a Dietz & Watson plant in Delanco.
“Our thoughts are with the church’s congregation and school community who have been impacted,” the statement said.
“The devastating loss will be felt by our entire county" it continued, while noting relief at the absence of deaths or apparent injuries.
The fire burned from at least 6 p.m. Monday into Tuesday’s early-morning hours, said Tharp, as embers still smoldered in rubble that could be seen on the Columbus side of the ruins.
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He offered this overview of firefighters’ efforts to subdue the massive blaze:
Firefighters initially entered the large two-story church, but heavy smoke and heat thwarted efforts to combat the blaze with hoses. The building’s layout — with multiple small rooms, curving hallways and a smaller chapel — also prevented firefighters from moving safely inside the building.
Firefighters then left the church within minutes on an early fire commander's order and went into a defensive mode, trying to protect other buildings at the Fountain of Life complex. A school and a family-life center with a gym survived the fire, although the school may have suffered smoke damage, Tharp said.
Meanwhile, fire trucks brought water from a pond at Jacksonville and Columbus roads to the church on the 1200 block of Columbus Road. Portable pools also we set up at a driveway entrance to receive water for firefighters from trucks of fire departments from other communities that were sent to help with the water-supply process.
No one was believed to be in the church at the time of the fire, which caused the sanctuary’s roof to collapse before it destroyed the building.
The cause and origin of the fire were not known Tuesday afternoon. A task force investigation is underway by local, county, state and federal authorities.
The pastors and other church leaders have decided to move Sunday services to the life center in the back of the complex.
Tharp said the losses could top $24 million. Local agencies are working with federal agencies to determine the cause, a move Tharp said is protocol when dealing with a fire at a church.
Parishioner Tony Wolosin of Browns Mills cried Monday night after arriving at the scene to see the church ablaze. She returned Tuesday afternoon with her daughter-in-law who lives close by to view the devastation in daylight.
“I was not crying just for the church (building), but I have been so emotional because it was there that beautiful memories were made of my son, William, who was saved from addiction by the pastors there,” she said.
She said the pastors saved William through counseling and mentoring and gave him purpose in life eight years ago and until he recently passed away at the age of 38.
“He then started volunteering there and later they allowed him to work there. Then he brought me and the rest of the family into the church."
Staff writer Jim Walsh contributed to this story.
Carol Comegno loves telling stories about South Jersey life, history and military veterans for the Courier Post, Burlington County Times and The Daily Journal. If you have a story to share, call her at 856-486-2473 or email email@example.com.
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This article originally appeared on Cherry Hill Courier-Post: Fountain of Life Center fire: Why firefighters couldn't save church