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TUESDAY, DECEMBER 19, 2006
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A Hartselle firefighter directs a stream of water from a ladder truck onto the Falkville First United Methodist Church on Monday. Despite the best efforts of firefighters, only the stone exterior of the 130-year-old structure was left standing.
Daily photo by Gary Cosby Jr.
A Hartselle firefighter directs a stream of water from a ladder truck onto the Falkville First United Methodist Church on Monday. Despite the best efforts of firefighters, only the stone exterior of the 130-year-old structure was left standing.

Historic Falkville church burns
Main Street structure reduced to stonework; pastor plans to rebuild

By Ronnie Thomas
rthomas@decaturdaily.com 340-2438

FALKVILLE — Tears streamed down Nina Winkles' face as she watched a part of her world burn.

Within an hour after her grandson, Jim Smith, phoned 911 at about noon from her nearby home, fire had consumed the historic Falkville First United Methodist Church at 253 East Main Street. Only the stone exterior was still standing.

Smith, 24, his wife, Amanda, and their children, Hagen, 4, and Brantsen,2, were in Winkles' backyard on East Pike Road, behind the church, playing baseball when they saw smoke.

Hagen Smith, 4, watches the fire from the safety of the lap of his grandmother Kelly Grandstaff. Grandstaff sais she attended the church, but was not a regular member.
Daily photo by Gary Cosby Jr.
Hagen Smith, 4, watches the fire from the safety of the lap of his grandmother Kelly Grandstaff. Grandstaff sais she attended the church, but was not a regular member.
"A short time earlier, Jim had ridden the kids past the church on a golf cart and didn't notice anything unusual," she said. "It's a sad day. I attended that church since 1959."

That was the year that she met her husband there, Bob Winkles, the late Falkville mayor. They married the next year.

The church's part-time pastor, Kenneth Weldon, a Cullman resident, said, "We'll go from here and keep going. We'll have church services Sunday. We just don't know where."

Weldon estimated the loss in excess of $1 million. He said the church has insurance and that he intends to rebuild on the site.

"We'll meet somewhere Wednesday night, maybe at a member's house, and make plans for Sunday," he said.

Falkville Fire Chief Eric Sawyer said when he and firefighter Phillip Free arrived, flames were shooting out the east side roof, where the sanctuary is located. Sawyer drove the main engine, a 750-gallon pumper, while Free drove the department's secondary engine, a 1,000-gallon pumper.

"We first attempted an interior attack but had to pull back when the roof started caving in," Sawyer said.

"We also had a problem with water supply. We ran out of water for about a minute while other firefighters were hooking 6-inch hoses to the hydrants."

Hartselle City and the Ebenezer Volunteer Fire Department also responded, putting about 20 firefighters at the scene.

Taking a breather while fellow firefighters continued to battle the blaze, Sawyer said, "We only have about 700 gallons of water a minute. We need about 4,000 gallons a minute. Also, a ladder truck broke down about a week ago."

Sawyer said Falkville has plenty of drinking water, but "not enough to fight a fire of this magnitude. Granted, this only happens once in a blue moon. But this is a landmark in town that's destroyed."

Falkville Mayor JimmieWalker, also on the scene, said he didn't realize there was a water resource problem.

Firefighters hose down the remains of Falkvile First United Methodist Church on Monday afternoon.
Daily photo by Gary Cosby Jr.
Firefighters hose down the remains of Falkvile First United Methodist Church on Monday afternoon.
"I know we've spent a lot of money recently upgrading our system," he said. "We have water coming in from everywhere. But if we have problems, we'll address them. We want our town protected."

Other church members and residents gathered. Debbie Higginbotham, Nina Winkles' niece, said she has attended the church all her life and baptized there as a child.

"My aunt called me about noon and told me the church was on fire," she said. "I couldn't believe it."

Neither could Anne Vest, who is church organist and a lifelong member. Her husband, Vance, is chairman of the administrative board.

"Our daughter, Janet Teague, married here, and her five children were christened here," she said. "There are a lot of good memories. Our church choir had a beautiful cantata here (Sunday) at 11 a.m. We had so much fun preparing for it, and a lot of people came. Thank God, we didn't have a church full of kids here for Bible school when the fire broke out."

Vest said she phoned her daughter at Barkley Bridge Elementary School in Hartselle to tell her about the tragedy.

"She had already heard about it from her husband, Cory," Vest said. "She didn't have time to talk, but she did say this: 'Don't worry. God has a plan.' "

Dr. Sarah Light, who also grew up in the church and married there, said the church is about 130 years old.

"We renovated the church in 1947," she said. "The outer structure was built around the old building. All those stones were produced by hand and fitted."

Jo Wilson, the wife of the church's former pastor, the late Jim Wilson, still lives in the parsonage in front of the church at 265 East Main Street. The fire was so hot that it melted the vinyl siding on the side closet to the church.

"Someone was harping on us about that," Sawyer said. "It's unfortunate, but that's only cosmetic damage. We were busy trying to save the church."

State Fire Marshal Jim Hannah was on the scene quickly. He said he was in Decatur on a fire investigation.

"We'll start our investigation here today in an effort to determine the origin," he said. "I can't speculate now."

About 4:15 p.m., Sawyer said that while firefighters had the blaze under control within an hour, firefighters will be on the scene much longer "knocking down hot spots and trying to cool off the debris where we can get in there."

At about 5:20 p.m., central dispatch asked the Morgan County Rescue Squad to bring a light tower to the site so firefighters can work throughout the night.

The marquee in front of the church reads:

"There has been only one Christmas. The rest are anniversaries."

The church's 80 members hope that Christmas 2007 will mark the first anniversary of their new beginning.

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