Relief greets news that fire at Eastern Shore church was not caused by arson Bad electrical connection suspected in Berlin blaze

June 20, 1996|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

BERLIN -- A pre-dawn fire yesterday at a 115-year-old United Methodist church near here raised widespread fear that the Eastern Shore had been touched by a national plague of arson at black churches. But a swarm of local, state and federal agencies called to the scene agreed that a faulty electrical connection, not racist hatred, had started the blaze.

The fire in St. John's United Methodist Church in rural Worcester County did about $200,000 damage, said state Fire Marshal Rocco J. Gabriele. His preliminary finding of accidental fire was supported by the separate investigation of about a dozen agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. They were joined by representatives of the FBI and the Maryland State Police as they sifted through ashes and poked at the charred rubble.

"From their independent analysis and our independent analysis, it appears to have been an electrical fire," said Mark Siebert, an agent-in-charge from the Hyattsville ATF office. Local firefighters, ATF agents, and a trained black Labrador named Bear scoured the charred shell of the church for signs of an accelerant or other traces of arson, but found none.

The list of officials at the crowded scene was a short "who's who" of state and local government: Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. was present, as was Col. David B. Mitchell, superintendent of the Maryland State Police, Democratic Del. Bennett Bozman of Berlin, and Gabriele. Gov. Parris N. Glendening, on his way to a White House conference about the continuing arson of black churches in the South, called Mitchell's car phone to talk to St. John's acting Pastor Shirley Polk.Two Worcester County commissioners were also there.

All acknowledged that fear of a church arson had brought them to the black church, and all said they were relieved to learn that arson apparently had not occurred at St. John's. Firetrucks responded to a 2: 41 a.m. call from a neighbor, Gabriele said, and the fire was extinguished within an hour. But the building's age and wood frame made the fire spread quickly, and damage was extensive.

A small annex linked to the sanctuary was almost destroyed and the inside of the church was badly charred. The church's 14 wooden pews were still standing, but the organ, the altar and the hymnals were ruined. Part of the sanctuary roof was destroyed.

Polk was confident the church would not falter.

"This is the building -- we are the church," she said as she surveyed the damage. "We have strong faith, and this is only going to bring us closer together."

The number of people who came to the scene, and the general community reaction of concern and relief, supported Polk's assessment.

"We don't need that around here," said Worcester County resident Bill Garton.

"I'm relieved it wasn't arson," agreed Bozman, a former Worcester County commissioner and now a state delegate. "We've mended our fences in Worcester County, and we need to get along."

The man who called in the fire said that he was awakened by noise when his electricity went off just before 3 a.m.

"I heard something like a little 'boom!' My electricity and fan went off, and I got up to get a flashlight," said Wayne Purnell, who lives about 500 yards from St. John's. He had planned to be married in the church in August.

"I looked over here and the church was fully in flames," Purnell added. "I ran back in the house and called 911. I'm glad that it wasn't arson. In a little community like this, it would be hard on you."

Pub Date: 6/20/96

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