Church reduced to rubble following fire in Sherkston

A century-old church near Port Colborne has been reduced to rubble after an early morning fire Tuesday.

Crews were called to Grace Church on Empire Road in Sherkston shortly after 3 a.m., says Chief Tom Cartwright of the Port Colborne fire department.

"Upon our arrival, we saw flames out the windows of the basement area extending up into the main area of the church," he said.

The flames kept firefighters from heading inside, forcing them to focus on an exterior attack and ensuring the fire didn't spread to nearby buildings.

Two tankers, a ladder truck and an engine from Fort Erie were called in to help battle the fire, along with tankers from Welland and Niagara Falls, Cartwright says. 

Fire crews from Wainfleet came in to stand by at the city's fire station while 30 to 35 firefighters were at the church, the chief said.

By 10:30 a.m., the building was all but destroyed.

"Basically the entire church has fallen inward and it's in the basement," said Cartwright.

Officials are still working to determine what exactly was inside the building, but early damage estimates range from $1.5 to $2 million, he said.

The church was home to a congregation of the United Brethren (UB) Church, an evangelical denomination based in the United States.

A Facebook post shared by the denomination Tuesday morning quoted Brian Magnus, bishop of the UB Church in Canada, saying the pastor's family, who lived next door, noticed smoke coming from the building around 3:30 a.m.

"The front half (sanctuary, lobby and basement) are down to the basement foundation walls," reads a quote attributed to Magnus. "The back half is also burned, and smoke and water-filled, and will need to be torn down to the concrete slab."

The bishop is also asking for prayers of support for the congregation.

"I guess the news spread and some of the church members and neighbours stood around watching the last couple of hours. They're in shock and need God's comfort."

Cartwright said he spoke with one of the congregation members who told him the church has stood for roughly 125 years.

"It's got an old history," said the fire chief, adding the timber and wood inside would have been very dry.

"It's an older structure and obviously a lot of the safety features that would be in new construction weren't in this building because of the age of it," he said. "Once [fire] gets a foothold, it's very difficult to deal with."

No injuries have been reported.

The Office of the Ontario Fire Marshal has been called in to investigate.

Cartwright belongs to a church in the area and said he can understand what members are going through.

"It's basically a part of your life … it's a huge loss to the community."

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