Hurricane threatens church a 3rd time N.C. town landmark recovers from Bonnie

August 28, 1998|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

WILMINGTON, N.C. -- Excuse Pastor Mike Queen and his congregation and a good portion of this city's residents if they seem to spend an unusual amount of time looking skyward. For the past two years, the skies have been a source of hopelessness as well as power.

Hurricane Bonnie marked the third time in two years that the eye of such a storm has stared straight back down on them, the third time their Southern beauty of a town has been hit by such severe winds and rain.

It also marked the third time the town's most famous landmark would be threatened.

Wilmington does not have a skyline; there are no buildings big enough to form one. But since 1870, a simple copper steeple had been atop Queen's church, the First Baptist Church, and it had been visible from all around the town.

That changed Sept. 6, 1996. Hurricane Fran, just a month after Hurricane Bertha, blew into town like no storm Wilmington had ever seen. Buildings were destroyed. Flooding was massive. Trees crashed into houses. Electricity was out for more than a week.

And that familiar steeple lay crumpled on the ground.

"People would ask me, 'Did the church have to vote to rebuild it?' " Queen recalled yesterday. "I'd tell them there was never any doubt. These are built for the great symbolism that is our glory to God."

Just a week ago, though, it became a symbol of Wilmington's recovery from Fran. On Aug. 20, townspeople gathered on Market Street to watch a 40-foot section of the rebuilt steeple hoisted into place.

It was far from the finishing touch -- the very top would be hoisted by year's end -- but once again Wilmington had a building to look up to. Local television carried the construction live.

Yesterday, residents walked to the church, past broken storefronts, around felled trees and through intersections where traffic lights still were not working. People in cars stopped in front of the church and they craned their necks upward, to see what had become of their steeple.

"You have to understand," said Stefany Rhodes, 49, who runs a bed and breakfast in Wilmington. "The whole town's been watching that church be put back together, even people who don't go to church. When it went up it was like, OK, we're back together again."

Inside the church yesterday, Queen checked the windows; none was broken. But work crews were pushing mops and water vacuums and squeegees. Hour after hour of rain had fallen from Bonnie, and a good portion of it was on the church's red carpet.

The steeple, though, had held.

ZTC "I guess it means a lot to people," said Queen.

"For a lot of people that steeple coming down told them that something very serious had happened here. At the time, it was a symbol of what Fran did. When we hoisted it up there last week, it was a symbol of what we could do. It still is."

Pub Date: 8/28/98

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.