By Barry Dalton
When the Vandalia Fire Department arrived on the scene of a house fire at 314 S. Taylor Street on Thursday, Feb. 25, it was already too late to save the 125-year-old building. Volunteer firefighters worked tirelessly to contain the flames, with some firefighters staying on scene until after 1 a.m.
Neighbors had called 9-1-1, and a mother and daughter in the home were able to escape without injuries.
“We got the call at 7:39 p.m., cleared [the fire] at midnight, and the flames were out,” said Vandalia Fire Investigator Dakota Buie. However, firefighters were unable to make entry due to the structure being unstable.
The fire, which could be seen for several blocks Thursday night, brought a final cremation to what had once been the original sanctuary of the Second Missionary Baptist Church of Vandalia.
The following morning, burning embers, small flames and billowing smoke, whipped up by a breeze, still haunted the holy structure, even as fire hoses lay frozen alongside it from freezing overnight temperatures. Half melted toys were scattered about the scene.
“We had the Audrain deputy check periodically and keep watch on the structure throughout the night,” Buie noted. “We did come back occasionally to keep it cool and take care of any pop up hot spots.”
Neighbors, concerned that the fire was not yet out, called the Audrain Sheriff’s Department. Deputy Lucas Caples, who was on patrol in Vandalia, returned to the scene Friday morning at about 9 a.m. and notified local firefighters that wind had stirred up some additional pop-ups. Firefighters returned to the scene again, assessed the situation and determined the fire remained contained.
“When we got here last night, there wasn’t really anything we could do except contain the fire,” said Lt. Bob Hunn of the Vandalia Fire Department. “I don’t know how many thousands of gallons we dumped in it; there’s a basement underneath that.”
Captain Brandon Straube explained on Friday morning there were at least two roofs and two ceilings in the structure, which complicated the fire.
“That’s why it took the fire as long as it did to go through the roof,” Straube said. “But once it did, it was like mad–that was some of the pictures they were posting on Facebook last night–right after the fire went through the roof.”
The basement, which had become filled with water, added to the instability of the old building.
“We can’t put it [completely] out, period [because] you can’t get in there,” explained Dewey Straube, assistant chief of the Vandalia Fire Department. “Because if we go in, and we fall in, then we’re dead.”
Buie said the fire was caused by a shortage of wiring at the breaker box of the structure.
Vandalia Fire Chief Rusty Strother thanked the Farber Fire Department, the Van-Far Ambulance District, the Audrain County Sheriff’s Office and the Audrain Joint Communications for all their hard work and dedication to this incident. He also thanked community members who brought bottled water for the firefighters.
Rainfall on Sunday helped extinguish the last of the smoldering embers, but not the fond memories of those who attended the church with their families.
“Small church, large heart,” said Lorraine Holman, who was Christened in the church but only knows it from stories her family has told and old photographs.
The Second Missionary Baptist Church is an historically black church that was founded in 1895 but which closed its Taylor Street location in 2013. The congregation moved to a new building at 150 W. Hwy. 54.
In a brief history of the church prepared by Joyce Holman for the Vandalia Area Historical Society, the late Ella Essex recounted that the church began with 14 members meeting in a schoolhouse in 1895. Because there were no Baptist churches for blacks in Vandalia in the 1890s, they built the Second Missionary Baptist Church in 1896.
Next week, the Leader will show some more old photos of the church and its members over the years along with additional historical details and perspectives.