NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. (WIVB) - A shell is all that remains of a church that stood for more than a century in Niagara Falls.
The former Pierce Avenue United Presbyterian Church was destroyed by a fire that broke out early Friday morning and occupied firefighters for most of the day due to high winds and the old wood that turned the building into a tinder box. The church dates back to 1893.
The first call came in about 7:15, but by the time the first units arrived on the scene, the building was already fully engulfed in flames reaching as high as 100 feet into the sky as a newstracker video shows. Firefighters were forced to fall back.
Battallion Chief Mark Gray said, "Crews tried to make entry. When they forced the doors, they were blown back out by the flames. They could not make entry in the rear. It was tough to make entry in the front of the building, and we found the same conditions there, heavy smoke, heavy fire load."
High winds, gusting to 40 miles-an-hour also made the job tougher for Niagara Falls' bravest. Firefighters also hosed down neighboring homes as flaming embers rained down.
Leon Street neighbor said, "Smoke was coming from the back. I thought everything was under control, and everything I saw was flying out the windows. I told my wife I think we better get out of here."
The former Pierce Avenue United Presbyterian Church was built in 1893 and former congregant Don Umlauf recalled the glory days when the church celebrated its centennial back in 1993. Umlauf said it was magnificent.
"Solid oak pews, and beams an everything in there. I mean it is indescribable," said Umlauf.
The congregation vacated the old landmark a few years later and back in 2007, new owners took over, the Bible Way Church of God in Christ. J.W. Stewart is the pastor and says services will go on, even if it has to be the church's RV.
Stewart said, "That's right. I am going to continue to have church in the RV, yes."
For Umlauf, seeing the church's destruction is like losing a dear friend.
Umlauf said, "And I hate to see it go. I am going to get out of the area for a while. I don't want to see it."
A demolition crew has already started taking down the old church. No cause has been determined for the fire yet, but witnesses say the flames and smoke seemed to start in the back of the building where some remodeling was taking place. Stewart said the building was not insured.
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