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A Study in Arches: The Fire at the Westport Presbyterian Church

It begins as strings of smoke rising from the roof. Waves of flame pursue, erupting into the twilight sky. Gold and orange flames dance in upper windows, eating alive the things of everyday – a desk, a chair, carpet, pictures and photographs in what was once an office, a kitchen, a sanctuary, an historic church. The evening stars disappear into masses of dense smoke that shroud this old part of the city.

Encircling the church, four hook and ladder trucks raise their ladders into the churning smoke and fire. The lights of the aerial buckets loom in and out of the blackness; water cannons arch thick rivers of water into the flames. The roof of the sanctuary is soon ablaze, then gone. Only the arch of the roof remains, etched in flames, as the fire tears at each and every board. The smoke smells sweet, like the wood of old pews and kneelers.

The people on the sidewalk and in the street are quiet, enthralled by the power they witness on this unseasonably warm December evening. At a discreet distance, onlookers huddle in shifting groups, while others walk the police barricades or press against yellow tape that separates the church from its neighbors. Cameras, cell phones and video attempt to capture the strange and awesome beauty that has come to destroy.

This will be a two-alarm fire, causing three to four million dollars of damage. No one will be injured; there are no heroic rescues or tragic loss of life. This one hundred and seven year old building has been a touchstone for many of those who witness its destruction. On this night, they will share memories with other strangers, a neighbor, or a police officer standing at a barricade. Over the years there have been so many weddings, a baptism, a performance attended, a meal shared, a funeral. These hours become a vigil, to witness and honor this unassuming cornerstone of the neighborhood.

By 3:00 pm the day after the fire, the streets are reopened, and the cause of the fire determined. A chain link fence seals off the church from the rest of the neighborhood. Amazingly, there is little damage to an historic house, a store, a daycare that is tucked around the church. In addition to its small congregation, the church has been the home to local arts groups, scout troops and social service agencies that officed there.

The day after the fire, the stone walls remain, standing straight and true. Sunlight streams through the charred arch of the sanctuary, now silhouetted against a spring blue sky.


Ruth Michel has been writing for three years and has recently completed a novella.  She lives in Kansas City, Missouri.

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