The firefighters aboard the first engines to arrive on West Saratoga Street saw flames shooting from the church's steeple. Five lugged hoses through the front door and climbed up the tower.
But the fire was getting too big, the commander recalled yesterday. Worried that the steeple would collapse, fellow commanders quickly decided the men had to get out. Calls went out over the radio. One man left, but four others remained inside.
"They weren't coming out," recalled firefighter Richard A. Altieri II, who had helped set up the hose line. Altieri raced into the building and found the men three stories above ground where they were struggling to bring the hose up a narrow staircase. "I started yelling at them to get out," he said.
An air horn blasted. It was another warning to evacuate. The men got out so quickly they left their hoses in the tower. Less than a minute later, the church steeple collapsed.
"I'm not a religious man, but somebody was looking out for us," Altieri said. "We had enough time to turn around and look at it when it came down."
The fire Tuesday afternoon at First Mount Olive Free Will Baptist Church was described as both "spectacular" and "almost textbook" by a fire commander who fought it. About 150 firefighters were on the scene training water onto the burning church in the 800 block of W. Saratoga St.
It was unlikely that firefighters could have done anything to save the church, Division Chief Donald W. Heinbuch said yesterday. The twin goals, he said, were to prevent the fire from spreading to other buildings and to make sure everyone fighting it was safe.
The methods of fighting such fires, assuming nobody is in the building, can be reduced to two short phrases: "surround and drown" and "big fire, big hose."
Robert Solomon, an engineer with the National Fire Protection Association, said that when a church is ablaze, the first concern of on-scene commanders is a steeple collapse.
"It is a small footprint," he said. "So if you get a lot of heat consuming the wood, that part of the structure can be weakened. That forces the fire department into a more defensive firefighting position."
He added: "We've seen the churches ... where there is a massive collapse. It's total devastation."
Before Heinbuch took control of the fire scene, he circled the building to get a sense of where trucks were and to get a feel for the situation. He said his first thoughts were that the firefighters should evacuate and create a buffer zone so that if the building fell, nobody near it would be hurt.
Both happened before he took command.
Because firefighters couldn't get inside the church, they took up positions outside and directed streams of water on the blaze, executing the "surround and drown" tactic.
"Since we couldn't go in it, we knew within minutes that we'd loose the whole roof," Heinbuch said.
Fourteen high-pressure hoses - each capable of delivering 750 gallons a minute - sent water arcing into the 140-year-old church, Heinbuch said, adding that hoses and firetrucks were hooked up to 10 hydrants.
Firefighters attached big hoses to seven aerial ladders. They also used five "deck guns" - powerful nozzles attached to fire pumper trucks - to spray water onto the roof. Another hose was positioned on the roof of an adjacent building and one was on the ground.
Heinbuch recalled seeing a deluge of water pour down the church steps while the roof was burning. "The water has to go somewhere," he said.
The weight of water poured onto the church increased the load on the already weakened structure, making it more vulnerable to collapse, he said.
At least five of the church's buttresses were cracked yesterday, and there was a gaping hole in the roof that was visible from the ground. But none of the stained-glass windows appeared to be damaged, Heinbuch said.
Four safety officers were at the scene yesterday, he said - a staffing level that would not have occurred months ago, before the department started a new safety initiative.
At a fire, a safety officer is responsible for watching tactics and making sure that firefighters follow safety rules. The safety officer's orders can trump those of the on-scene commander, but it rarely comes to that.
Heinbuch said at one point the safety officer told him that some of his men were too close to the fire. He disagreed, but moved the men, anyway.
"It just reiterates that you have to be cautious," he said. "Our guys, they just want to go in."firstname.lastname@example.org