DOUGLAS — Agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were in Douglas Tuesday morning assisting Douglas Fire Department investigators in determining what ignited separate fires that destroyed two churches Monday and early Tuesday.
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church on 11th Street and D Avenue and the First Presbyterian Church on 10th and D Avenue are more than 110 years old and are located on the Historic Church Square along with the First Baptist Church and the Grace Methodist Church that are on 10th and 11th and C Avenue.
According to Douglas historian Cindy Hayostek, Church Square is the only block in the nation that contains four different-denomination churches, Grace Methodist, Southern Baptist, St. Stephan’s Episcopal and First Presbyterian, which are located on each corner of the historic block.
According to Capt. Matt King, public information officer for the DFD, a call of smoke in the area of 11th Street and D Avenue came in shortly before 11 a.m. Monday.
Upon arrival smoke could be seen coming from the roof of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church.
Coqui Children’s Center, which is located between St. Stephen’s and Grace Methodist, was promptly evacuated by emergency personnel once firefighters arrived on scene. Its staff and clients were escorted to the 10th Street Park where they were reconnected with their families.
As the fire grew, DFD requested additional assistance from the Pirtleville and Sunnyside Volunteer Fire Departments. Moments after the two volunteer departments arrived, a call of a vehicle fire in the 1200 Block of 23rd Street was received.
Douglas Fire Chief Kevin Lomeli asked Pirtleville to respond to that call. As they were enroute to 23rd Street, the call escalated from a car fire to a structure fire after a nearby mobile home also caught fire. Sunnyside responded to assist Pirtleville with the blaze, which was extinguished in a few hours.
While Sunnyside and Pirtleville were at the fire on 23rd Street, the DFD continued to battle the fire at St. Stephen’s.
After battling the initial fire for about an hour, smoke was seen coming from the roof of the First Presbyterian Church located several feet south of St. Stephen’s.
All DFD personnel, even those who were off duty Monday, were summoned to assist in combating the two fires as they continued to spread.
The fire was deemed under control around 4 p.m. DFD remained on scene until around 6 p.m., but then responded back to the site about two hours later with one truck and several fire fighters to extinguish hot spots that had flared up inside St. Stephen’s.
Douglas Police monitored the scene all night, and around 2 a.m. officers noticed flames inside the First Presbyterian Church. The DFD arrived moments later and spent the next four hours extinguishing the flames.
According to King, four buildings in all, two belonging to each church, were damaged in the fire. St. Stephen’s is considered a total loss, while the First Presbyterian initially suffered considerable smoke and water damage, but after the flare up was changed to a total loss as well.
“It is still too early to determine what started these fires,” King said, adding the investigation will hopefully show if the two fires ignited separately or somehow the first fire spread to the second church.
King did confirm that both churches were unoccupied during the event and as of now, no injuries have been reported.
The Rev. Peggy Christiansen, one of three new part-time pastors at the First Presbyterian Church in addition to Joca Gallegos and James Barton, told the Herald/Review she was informed by officials that both fires started separately, leading to increased speculation arson may be involved.
Lomeli said ATF agents contacted him and offered their assistance, which he gladly accepted.
Reports from the fire Monday indicated some kind of update would be made Tuesday. No comment had been made as of 9:30 a.m. Tuesday.
King admitted battling these fires was a challenge for the DFD firefighters, a small department, but they are appreciative of the support Pirtleville and Sunnyside provided. He said the wind cooperated by remaining calm for the most part.
Christiansen said she is devastated by what has happened to her church.
“My grandparents were married in this church,” she said. “My grandmother was the Sunday school superintendent for years and years. One of the rooms here is named after her. I don’t know yet if that’s been damaged or not. It’s been a very vital church for many years.
“It’s gone through some transition and rebuilding. As I arrived here today, I saw them breaking the stained-glass windows in the sanctuary. Seeing that just broke my heart. It was like a punch in the gut.”
Manny Valenzuela and his wife, Sylvia, were married in the First Presbyterian Church more than 50 years ago and are still active members.
“I have a lot of fond memories from this church,” he said.
Christiansen said her church was ready to open its doors and offer a brief shelter for Title 42 migrants, but that had not yet happened.
“We didn’t end up housing anybody,” she said.
Hayostek was baptized and married in St. Stephen’s and her daughter was married there.
She said she is deeply saddened seeing the destruction of historic churches that had been such a rich part of Douglas’ heritage.
In an email Tuesday afternoon Douglas Mayor Donald Huish stated, “The incidents at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church and the First Presbyterian Church are a profound loss for the community of Douglas that extends beyond the physical damage to two of our city’s most historic and cherished churches. My heart goes out to every member of our community affected by this loss.
“The Douglas community stands together with these churches and pray for their comfort and strength during this challenging time.”
Members of both churches gathered Monday evening for a brief prayer service on the lawn of the Douglas-Williams House, vowing to work together as they try to rebuild what they and our community lost.