SPENCER – There were gasps from onlookers Friday afternoon as the steeple of the First Congregational Church was consumed by flames before crashing to the ground during a blaze that left little of the 160-year-old building standing.
What did remain was being demolished Friday night as there was nothing to salvage, fire officials said.
The fire broke out at the Main Street church just after a thunderstorm with vivid lightning moved through the area at around 3 p.m.. An automatic fire alarm was reported and firefighters arrived, went inside to investigate and found flames in the attic, Southbridge Fire Chief Paul Normandin, who was the incident commander in the absence of Spencer’s Fire Chief Robert Parsons, said.
The fire spread quickly and challenged firefighters who had to battle the flames from outside the building as the structure was becoming unstable.
In radio transmissions, emergency personnel could be heard shouting that there was “heavy fire coming out the steeple.”
Firefighters said they believed there had been a backdraft, a phenomenon that occurs when a fire that has used all the oxygen available is suddenly provided with more oxygen causing an explosion.
Thick black smoke wrapped itself around the steeple and filled the air as a line of flames lapped along the roof line.
The collapse of the steeple brought an emotional response from residents who stood across the street and shared memories of life events at the church. The heat of the fire coupled with emotion left their faces flushed.
The church was listed as an historic building and outfitted with a plaque that read, “First Congregational Church, Built in 1740 as a meeting house, Destroyed by fire January 1862, Rebuilt in April 1863 to accommodate 600 worshippers.”
Firefighters evacuated the Senior Living at Prouty building next to the church. Smoke alarms were sounding inside that building because of the fire.
At the rear of the church, firefighters manned a hose in the cemetery, pouring water on the back of the building which had also collapsed.
Normandin said more than 60 firefighters were called in under mutual aid, hailing from as far away as Warren and Barre.
Parsons, who returned home from a vacation in Maine when he received word of the fire, said the loss to the town was huge.
The building sat on Route 9, just outside the downtown business district and often cut a stunning silhouette at sunset.
The cause of the fire is under investigation.