Lightning struck the steeple of a 140-year-old West Baltimore church during an unexpectedly violent thunderstorm yesterday, igniting a five-alarm fire that left the sanctuary in ruins.
The bolt struck the steeple of the First Mount Olive Free Will Baptist Church about 3 p.m., officials said. The spire soon toppled onto the adjoining roof, setting fire to the building and devastating its 3,000-member congregation.
"The building will be a total loss," said fire Chief William J. Goodwin, as 150 firefighters with 42 pieces of equipment battled the blaze in the 800 block of W. Saratoga St.
Elsewhere, the sudden storm toppled trees, started other fires and cut power to tens of thousands of utility customers as it slashed across the Baltimore region.
In Hampden, high winds ripped the roof off a tea and sandwich shop and dropped trees onto parked cars. Quarter-sized hail peppered some spots as airport temperatures dropped 21 degrees in barely half an hour.
But the unexpected cool-down was not the deliverance Marylanders have longed for since the hot weather began last weekend. Highs will likely reach the 90s again today.
"If anything, the storms today are dropping moisture that's just gonna make it more humid," said Steve Zubrick yesterday from the National Weather Service's Sterling, Va., forecast office.
A real cold front is due to arrive late tonight or early tomorrow, holding daytime highs in the 80s through the weekend and into next week, with a continuing risk of showers or thunderstorms.
Yesterday's most serious damage occurred while Bishop Oscar E. Brown was meeting with members of his staff inside the First Mount Olive church when the lightning struck. "We heard a thump, but we didn't think anything of it," Brown said.
Mary Hynes, 84, who lives cater-corner to the church, watched the fire spread from the steeple to the roof. "It started right underneath the cross up on the steeple," said Hynes, who has been a member of the congregation for 35 years.
Blocks away, police Lieut. Brian Matulonis, head of the city homicide unit's operations squad, and Detectives Richard Valenzia, John Goods and Ryan Reass were looking for a witness in a murder case.
"One of us noticed the church steeple engulfed in flames and swaying back and forth," Matulonis said. He and his men ran to the church and banged on locked doors and windows to alert anyone inside that the church was burning.
"While we trying to get in, some church members peeked from windows and looked at us as if we were a bunch of nuts trying to break in," Matulonis said.
After what seemed like hours to the would-be rescuers, someone opened a door. The police officers told parishioners the church was burning and escorted six women and four men to safety, including the bishop. They all huddled together across the street.
"It could not have been 10 or 15 minutes later that the steeple fell in a southerly direction and onto the main part of the church and within a few feet of the conference room where the people had been meeting," Matulonis said. "My men and I are glad we were nearby and able to help."
Three firefighters were injured by falling debris, none seriously, but fire officers decided to fight the blaze from a distance in case the whole building collapsed. In the fight, as many as eight arcing streams of water were aimed at the church from aerial and ground hoses.
The choking smell of fire could be detected for more than a mile, and dark gray plumes could be seen for blocks.
Brown, who joined the 69-year-old congregation as a pastor in 1986, said he will meet with church leaders tomorrow to plan for the future.
"We are a people of faith, and we have just been preaching on faith for the last six, seven months," he said. "I can only say that was preparation for this moment, for us to trust God."
At the scene, Mayor Sheila Dixon said the city would help find the First Mount Olive congregation a temporary location and "make them whole."
"This church has been a great cornerstone in this community for so many years and ... we're behind them. We're going to provide everything that the city has," she said.
First Mount Olive's Web site says the congregation moved to the church building at Saratoga Street and Fremont Avenue in 1956. About 18 months ago, the church steeple and tower were renovated, Brown said.
In Hampden, police tape blocked the intersection of 36th Street and Chestnut Avenue, where lumber and crushed brick - portions of the roof of Finnerteas tea shop - littered the street.
Fire officials said no one was injured.
Two doors away, in a home products shop called In Watermelon Sugar, Allison Thompson said she didn't know what had happened until she saw the roof debris in the street.
"There was just horizontal rain blowing down the road," Thompson said. "We heard a huge, loud pop and saw the wire fall. But you couldn't hear the roof go because the wind was pretty loud."
Downed trees cut power to the neighborhood, and to traffic signals. A half-dozen trees fell onto cars.