Church fire chars most of 1800s site; Officials sift rubble for cause as friends reach out to members; 'I just started to cry'; Structure had just undergone painting, work to its roof


A framed painting of Jesus and a few hymnals and choir robes were pulled from the charred remains of a Shady Side church that was reduced to ashes and crumbled brick by a four-alarm fire early yesterday.

The members of Centenary United Methodist Church also had their faith -- but not the historic, 1860s building that firefighters could not save.

When the flames were noticed by passing motorists and nearby residents shortly before midnight Wednesday, the roof and steeple were engulfed, church members said.

"I just slammed on my brakes and started to cry," said longtime Centenary member Linda Groom, who had been driving past the church on Shady Side Road on her way home from Jessup.

Spraying 1,800 gallons of water per minute, it took more than 85 firefighters nearly three hours to control the blaze, said Battalion Chief John M. Scholz, an Anne Arundel Fire Department spokesman.

County fire investigators searched for clues to the cause of the blaze, assisted by the agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, before church members began wading through the flooded and singed remains of Sunday school classrooms and rehearsal spaces.

They came by the dozens to help clean up, to survey the damage, to offer support and to remember what the house of worship had come to mean to their families.

"There are lot of memories here," said longtime member Elaine Catterton. "But really what makes a church isn't the building, it's the people."

Many of those who gathered had spent most of the night at the scene, after spotting the flames from their nearby houses.

A passing motorist drove to the nearby Avalon Shores Fire Department to report the blaze, while others called 911 from their homes.

"All of sudden, I could see orange flashes in the window," said Debbie Patterson, who was startled by the sight of flames as she flipped channels between the Jay Leno and David Letterman shows. "I got up, right away, and called 911. But they knew about it already."

The Rev. Stephanie Vader, church pastor, said she could hear the crackle of the flames before she could see them from the rectory next door. "I wasn't sure what it was at first," she said.

When she looked out the window, she could see the sanctuary, which dates to the 1860s, engulfed.

Newer wings built for additional Sunday school space in the 1950s were still standing after the fire but will have to be demolished because the structure is unsound, Vader said.

The church has insurance, she said -- adding that it was too early to say how much of the contents would be covered by any settlement.

By early afternoon, the owners of a local convenience store had put out a jar for donations. And Vader said she had received dozens of invitations from nearby congregations and community groups offering space for the Methodist worship services.

But if Sunday's weather is OK, the congregation -- about 150 usually attend -- will meet for worship in front of the ruins, Vader said. In the event of inclement weather, she said, members would probably worship with St. Matthew's United Methodist Church next door.

The two congregations -- Centenary historically white, St. Matthew's black -- often attend each other's services and hold joint events such as vacation Bible school.

Although the destruction was a tragedy, Vader said, "I think this will bring us closer together. God will be with us."

The church's roof had been reshingled and the steeple repainted this week. The shingles were pine, which might have been one reason the fire spread so quickly, Vader said.

"We appreciate all that the fire departments did," Vader said. "They came from all over. It was very dangerous for them. The fire was really raging."

Scholz said the turnout included firefighters from Prince George's County, the Annapolis city department and the Naval Academy, in addition to Anne Arundel County stations.

Because much of southern Arundel has no fire hydrants, firefighters depended on equipment to draw water from the Chesapeake Bay and area tributaries into tanker trucks, which delivered 3,000-gallon loads to portable pools set up at the fire site.

"It's very difficult, especially in a rural type of water situation, to extinguish a fire of that magnitude," Scholz said. "That's why we have all this equipment and training for these situations."

It could take several days before county arson investigators and ATF agents determine the cause of the blaze.

It is standard procedure for ATF agents to assist in the investigation of church fires. But Vader said she doubted the fire was intentionally started. And, she said, "I don't think it was an act of God. I think it was probably just human error."

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