VIDEO: Healing begins for First Universalist Church members

03/17/2015 12:00 PM |

As you entered the hamlet of Southold, heading east around the bend at Tuckers Lane, a familiar site always greeted you: First Universalist Church.

This has been true not just for the current generation of North Forkers, but for generations past.

The historic landmark — with its clear glass windows and iconic steeple — was lost late Saturday night to a fast-moving blaze that drew about 150 firefighters to the Main Road property.  

Neighbors and passersby watched from the road as the volunteers did all they could to save the 178-year-old building, but little was left by the time the fire was extinguished.

“It’s a shame,” said Southold Fire Chief Peggy Killian. “It was a really pretty church.”

The fire, which police said is not believed to be suspicious, was first noticed just before 11:30 p.m. by Southold police officer Robert Haas, who alerted firefighters. The building was unoccupied at the time and no injuries were reported, police said.

Ms. Killian said the fire in the wooden structure “was probably going for a while before we were called.”

“It was already coming through the exposure on the east side,” she said. “And probably within minutes went from the inside to the outside and wrapped around the whole church.”

Then the building collapsed.

She said firefighters from at least a half-dozen departments responded and battled the blaze from about 11:30 p.m. to 4:30 a.m. Machinery was brought in Sunday morning to remove debris so firefighters could douse remaining pockets of fire and smoke.

“When the floors collapse on top of each other you can’t get the fire out in between,” Ms. Killian said. “The fire got so hot that it burned the vinyl siding on the house next door. It burned all the electrical wires overhead and the cable wires.

“It was very hot. Very hot. Once it made it to the outside, you thought it was the summer,” she said.

Southold Police Detective Edward Grathwohl said the origins of the fire are unknown.

“It was so fast-moving and there’s nothing left to look at,” he said.

Mr. Grathwohl was among the first on the scene Saturday night, at which point he saw only smoke. Then came the flames.

“It’s a 150-year-old church; it went quickly,” he said.

The congregation’s pastor, the Rev. Jef Gamblee, who lives in Staten Island, said he made it to the scene about 2 a.m.

“We’re all grieving right now,” he said. “This is obviously a very big loss.”

Pastor Jef, as he’s known, led a special 10:30 a.m. Sunday service at the nearby Custer Institute & Observatory. Minutes into the service, a speaker was briefly interrupted by a voice at the back of the room.

“Excuse us,” the gentleman said. “We have your bell. We thought you’d want it here.”

The voice was that of Southold fireman Brian Grattan, who had driven along with fellow firefighter Ed Boyd a little over a half-mile from the church to Custer Institute.

The discovery of the charred bell symbolized how First Universalist’s members were rising from the ashes themselves.

“I must have missed the day when they teach you in seminary what to do when your church burns down,” Pastor Jef told the congregation at the start of the service. “We’re going to have to figure this out together.

“We are gathering this morning to grieve, to hurt, to speak this tragedy into reality,” the pastor said.

After the minister’s remarks, members and friends of the church stood up, one by one, and spoke what was on their mind. Some shared their heartbreak. Others told tales of happier times spent in the 19th-century building.

They all tried to make sense of the loss of their home away from home, an event many of them likened to a death in the family.

Dan Durett of Greenport said that as he drove to the church Sunday morning, he was stopped by fire police who wouldn’t allow him to go any closer while they continued to control the fire. After explaining that he was a church trustee, he was allowed to approach the scene.

“It looked like a bomb hit it,” he said, adding that the ashy remains reminded him of the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Ala. He said it was appropriate that the congregation gathered at Custer Sunday instead.

“This place looks at the stars,” he said of the observatory. “And every one of you are the stars in my life.”

Pastor Jef said firefighters were able to save a church sign. It was brought to Custer before the service and displayed at the front of the room, which was filled with the smell of smoke.

“The church is the people,” Pastor Jef said. “The church is not the building. There’s certainly a lot of history there, but we can still come together.”

Peggy Richards and Kenneth Mac-Alpin of Greenport have been living at the church residence adjacent to the house of worship since their home on Kaplan Avenue burned down last month. Ms. Richards said Mr. MacAlpin came into the room late Saturday night and said he thought he smelled something burning.

“At first I just thought he was being paranoid after what we just went through,” Ms. Richards said. “I think we’re extra-sensitive to smoke right now.”

Ms. Richards, a member of the church for about seven years, quickly moved her car away from the church building and the pair escaped any danger. She said they were eventually let back into the house around 4:30 a.m.

She said she thought of all the generous donations from the community that were inside the residence, as she watched the fire crackle and the church burst into flames Saturday night.

“I remember thinking, ‘My new beginning is in there,’ ” she said.

Mark Sisson of Mattituck said the fire reminded him of when the North Fork Community Theatre burned down.

“We came back as strong as ever,” he said. “This church is as strong as North Fork [Community] Theatre. It will come back stronger.”

Thornton Smith of Greenport said church leadership will likely form several committees to study different aspects of rebuilding the church and decide on a best course of action.

Many area churches have already offered help and space as needed, as has Southold Free Library.

Longtime church member and fellow trustee John Wissemann recalled the first time he ever entered the church, roughly 80 years ago. The 90-year-old Southold native said even before then he’d take notice of the church as he passed by on his bicycle as a young boy.

“I loved that church,” he said.

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