Mormons regroup after church fire BALTIMORE COUNTY

February 23, 1993|By Glenn Small | Glenn Small,Staff Writer

As sunlight streamed through the charred and collapsed roof of the Mormon church in Essex yesterday, Don Stebbing, the church's maintenance manager, stood in the chapel and gave out a bit of gallows humor.

"We could have a fine Easter sunrise service in here," he said, the remark bringing laughter from fellow parishioners of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Stemmers Run Road. "We wouldn't have to go outside."

A fire Saturday night nearly destroyed the church and caused an estimated $3 million in damage. It did not destroy the 600-member congregation's spirit. Yesterday, parishioners continued to save what they could -- desks, chairs and other belongings.

And they tried to look on the bright side.

Rob Simpson, who watched county firefighters battle the three-alarm blaze that lasted well into Sunday morning, praised the firefighters for saving church records and protecting the church organ and piano.

"A building is just a convenience anyway," he said. "It's not the church. The church is the people. The church is the faith. A disaster like this is bringing a lot of people together. We're just like a family. This will be a strengthening experience for our family."

Rebuilding the church will take about 18 months. Mormon church officials visited the site yesterday and said removal of debris could begin Thursday, according to Mr. Stebbing. The officials were from the church's regional headquarters in Indianapolis.

The fire started when someone lit a wooden fence on fire behind the 25,000-square-foot building. Apparently, flames from the burning fence ignited the church's roof. From there, the fire raced through the building, officials said. The fire was reported at 10:30 p.m. Saturday.

More than 120 firefighters, whose equipment included four ladder trucks, battled the blaze for more than eight hours, pouring thousands of gallons of water on the fire from two fire hydrants, said Chief Mike Whittaker.

Chief Whittaker said the church's sprinkler system never had a chance to work, because the fire raged through the roof above the system.

A reward of up to $10,000 for information leading to an arrest and conviction has been offered, said Capt. Christopher Gauss, chief of the fire investigation unit.

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