Huge fire at Saugatuck Congregational Church doused after six hours

Westport firefighters, assisted by units from five other communities, for six grueling hours battled a smoky inferno that erupted late Sunday in the historic Saugatuck Congregational Church.

Flames erupted at the Post Road East landmark about 9:50 p.m. Sunday, fire officials said. A call for help was shortly sent to units in Fairfield and Norwalk

The first firefighters entering the church encountered fast-moving, heavy flames and smoke at the rear of the church complex, which houses offices, meeting rooms and a nursery school.

Safety conditions quickly deteriorated, according to fire officials, and firefighters were forced to evacuate the structure.

To prevent the fire from spreading to the 179-year-old sanctuary, Westport ladder truck 1, joined by Norwalk truck 2, attacked the blaze on the exterior. Another ladder company from Fairfield was called to help protect the sanctuary and steeple, as well as two engines from Norwalk, a hose wagon from Weston, a fourth ladder tower from Wilton, and a mobile air truck from Trumbull.

All available Westport fire units were dispatched to scene over the course of firefighting operations, while Fairfield firefighters provided backup coverage for the rest of the town at Westport fire headquarters.

A total of 63 firefighters were called to the scene the six communities were on the scene before the fire was declared under control about 3:35 a.m. Monday.

As of Monday morning, the cause of the blaze had not been determined. It is being investigated by the Westport fire marshal, Westport police and the state fire marshal.

The fire heavily damaged the rear of the structure where the administrative offices, meeting rooms and nursery school are located.

The roof at the rear of the complex was gone, and only the chimney was standing. At about 11:45 p.m., the fire was still going strong. Fire companies from Fairfield, Norwalk and Trumbull were dispatched to scene to assist.

The sanctuary, however, which appeared to have suffered some smoke and water damage, appeared to have largely been spared the more serious ravages of the blaze.

Sal Liccione, who lives nearby on Main Street, said that flames initially were leaping from the structure nearly as high as the white steeple of the sanctuary. He described the intense early stages of the fire as "horrific."

Liccione said that he was unsure if there had been people in any part of the church complex Sunday night, although he believes turkeys for the church's annual Thanksgiving feast were dropped off about 5 p.m.

More than 300 attend the holiday gathering each year.

Mary Ann West, a communications coordinator for the church, said there was no one in the church kitchen when the fire erupted, but that 30 turkeys to be used for the community dinner had been destroyed.

The Rev. Howie Tobak, the senior minister, said late Sunday that there is "not even a remote chance" the church will be able to host the Thanksgiving dinner at the usual site.

West, however, said church officials still plan to organize the holiday event, but will hold off for a day or so to announce an alternate plan.

Tobak and his wife live in the building next door.

West said church officials are grateful that no one appears to have been hurt.

Devon Gillespie, an 18-year-old member of the church from Fairfield, said he reacted emotionally seeing the flames and smoke and flames billowing from the church has attended since childhood.

"Words can't do justice to how you feel when a place like this is up in flames," he said, "but if words were going to describe it the best they can -- wow, is this happening, is this reality?"

Gillespie took comfort in the fact that the sanctuary apparently did not suffer severe damage. "It's a lot more relieving because on the way here my parents told me it may be down to the ground by the time we get there, so it's painful but it will survive and that's what matters most."

The church has played a vital role in the history of the region. The Saugatuck Congregational Church was organized on June 5, 1832, with 36 original members. The church, originally the site of Westport's first town meeting, has undergone a series of renovations and improvements through the years.

The American Red Cross dispatched a canteen unit to the scene to provide relief for emergency crews.

More to come on