Congregation undaunted by fire

By Dwight Andrews

Texas City Sun

Published February 10, 2004

“My sermons are hot, but not that hot,” said the Rev. Gary Veit, pastor of Memorial Lutheran Church, after an early morning blaze gutted the sanctuary Monday.

Concerned about not wanting to make a joke about the fire and damage to his church, Veit wanted to make sure his congregation knows that the church will go on.

“Church continues,” said Veit. “All the meetings and services will be taking place in our activity center on Fourth Street.

“We’re just going to move next door until we can get this cleaned up and rebuilt,” he said.

In the early morning hours, after Veit had delivered his Sunday evening sermon, neighbor Eugene Pringle woke to the sounds of smoke detectors in his home.

“About 4:30 (a.m.) the smoke detectors woke us up,” said Pringle. “About four years ago we had a fire at our house and we had to completely rebuild so I got everyone out of the house.

“When I got outside there was nothing but flames coming out of the church. The flames were pretty bad and the smoke was really bad. You couldn’t even see the houses on the street,” he said.

Pringle and several of his neighbors called 911 and then alerted others in the area.

Ann Pringle said she was “thinking, ‘please no, not again,’” as she stood outside and watched the flames next door.

Texas City Fire Department Capt. Mark O’Neal said of Pringle, “to be honest if he hadn’t been alerted to (the fire) we probably would have lost the whole church.”

“The ironic thing about this is the Bible on the pulpit was found by one of the firefighters with the pages turned to Ecclesiastes 3,” Veit said. “There is a time to build and a time to tear down.

“After the Grandcamp explosion in 1947, this church was renamed from Texas City Lutheran Church to Memorial Lutheran Church. Memorial Lutheran isn’t going to fold because of a heater fire. If we can survive the explosion then we can survive a heater fire.”

Pastors from several local churches including First United Methodist, Grace United Methodist, Peace Lutheran, First Presbyterian and St. John’s offered assistance to the congregation of Memorial Lutheran.

Charles Chollett, church member and property committee member, said the pastor called him when the fire broke out.

Chollet said when his wife answered the phone in the early hours of the morning he thought it might be a wrong number, “but when she kept talking I knew something somewhere was wrong.”

Chollet came out to the scene to find the church ablaze. He said the flames coming out the windows were “popping out like a blowtorch.” Chollet saw the firefighters break in through the front window and push the front door open from the inside, so they would not have to tear the door apart with an ax.

“I was pretty impressed with them,” Chollet said of the firefighters. Despite that the fire had engulfed the interior by the time anyone noticed it, the firefighters did their best to salvage what items they could, according to church members.

Chollet said firefighters moved the piano against a wall and covered it so it would not be damaged. “I couldn’t believe it when I walked in and I saw that red tarp,” he said.

However, some items were not as lucky as the piano. Most items in the sanctuary, such as the organ, about one third of the pews and the pastor’s robes were charred by the flames. Firefighters kept the blaze from spreading to the nearby homes.

O’Neal said four units and about 15 firefighters worked to put out the fire and contain any hot spots. Church members who were called out to the church during the fire provided the firefighters with ice water and coffee as they worked to salvaged the building.

“They got the main fire knocked out pretty quickly,” O’Neal said. “B-shift made a fantastic save.”