HAMLET — Officials with the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation determined Monday that “a set fire” caused extensive damage at Hamlet’s century-old First United Methodist Church.
“The fire was set,” spokeswoman Patty McQuillan said of the Friday evening fire. She gave no damage estimate because “SBI doesn’t do damage — it determines only whether a fire was set and what caused it.”
McQuillan would not say whether the blaze began inside or outside the church, but did confirm that it began near a large stained glass window. The SBI wishes to keep details to itself, she said.
But one church member said that when he toured the church Monday, looking for ways to keep it secure, it was clear the fire had begun inside.
“There’s not that much damage from the fire (itself, though),” said Richard Pait, who has attended First Methodist his entire life. But “the carpet is pretty much ruined, and there’s smoke damage on the ceiling.”
Pastor Deb Wilkins said rumors spread among bystanders Friday night that “somebody saw somebody throw something through a window.” She doesn’t know whether that’s even possible, she said, since the church installed Plexiglas shields over the windows a few years ago, to protect them from projectiles.
When firefighters led her through the damage the night of the fire, Wilkins said, she was “kind of struck by this image of the broken body of Jesus, (and) in my sermon, I made comments about ‘We’ll rise above this,’” she said. “The Church is the body of Christ.”
Friday night, Hamlet firefighters responded to two 911 calls from people who spotted the fire, one neighbor and a passerby.
A crew of four arrived with two engines, a rescue vehicle and a ladder truck, followed soon by Rockingham firefighters with a ladder truck. Lt. Justin Pruitt said Monday that Hamlet firefighters called in the ladder truck from Rockingham in case the fire climbed into the attic of the church complex.
“Heavy smoke and flames (were) visible in a (stained glass) window” when firefighters arrived, Pruitt said. The window later fell out of its frame, shattered by the heat and by the melting of its lead soldering. The Plexiglas plate on the outside of the window also melted away, Pruitt said.
Before learning that the church has central heating and air, firefighters had theorized that an errant spark from a floorboard heater could have caused the blaze. And Hamlet Fire Chief Calvin White said Friday that no one was inside when the fire broke out.
White said the fire started under a window on the High Street side of the church, on the corner of Charlotte and High streets.
Pruitt said firefighters “forced entry into the church,” confirming that the church was closed to outside access.
“Smoke and water damage … is high — it’s very high,” Pruitt said Monday. “But it’s going to be hard to put a number on it.”
Hamlet City Council member Eddie Martin stood in the freezing cold Friday night, watching firefighters manage the blaze. What was most striking to him, he said, was the quick response of the Hamlet Fire Department and cooperation by the Rockingham firefighters.
“I’m so glad that it wasn’t any worse than what it was,” said Martin, who attended the church in high school and returned after retiring as police chief in Rockingham.
“I hate it for the church because it’s got such historic value.”
According to a program for its Centennial Night in 1977, the current church was built in 1906 and enlarged in 1914. The sanctuary was remodeled in 1953.
“They really saved that building,” he said of Hamlet firefighters. “We couldn’t have asked for any better response.”
Because the church sanctuary was rendered unusable, members held services in the chapel of their fellowship hall Sunday.
“We’ll get past this,” Pait said. “This is just a hiccup in the road of life.”
Wilkins said she thought the stained glass could be replicated.
“There’s some good artisans out there,” she said, hopefully.
Anyone with information on the cause of the fire is asked to call the Hamlet Fire Department at 910-582-2441 or Richmond County CrimeStoppers at 910-997-5454, Pruitt said.
Reach Christine Carroll at 910-817-2673 or ChristineCarroll@yourdailyjournal.com.