Fire damages Knoxville church; passerby's call minimizes destruction

Fire damages Knoxville church; passerby's call minimizes destruction

For the third time in the last nine months, a Holston Conference church suffered fire damage when a July 30 blaze ripped through St. Andrews United Methodist Church in Knoxville District.

However, in contrast to fires that leveled the sanctuaries of Baileyton UMC in Morristown District on Nov. 24 and First Madisonville UMC in Maryville District on Dec. 10, the St. Andrews damage was kept to a minimum due to an alert passerby.

"A lady stopped by to find out what time services were, and she was reading off the marquee and happened to look up and see flames coming from the top of the bathroom window,” said the Rev. Harry Rehagen, a retired elder in his eighth year serving the 135-member church.

She quickly called 911 about 10 a.m., and firefighters responded and brought the fire under control.

According to Rehagen, the fire was concentrated in the narthex area where the restroom is located, but it caused smoke damage to the rest of the structure. “Because the building was completely closed up, smoke went everywhere,” he said.

A Knoxville Fire Department spokesperson said this week that officials are waiting to finish the interview process before a cause can be determined. Because the smoke and soot damage will result in repainting and new carpeting, the cost of damage is estimated at $30,000 or more. Much of the restroom will also have to be rebuilt.

An insurance adjuster spent a day and a half at the church assessing the damage, and the contractor, Servpro, has already begun the cleanup and repair work, which includes installing air purifiers throughout the building.

Servpro account executive Bentley Brackett said workers spent about 14 hours alone cleaning the dust from Rehagen’s office and books.

The church, located just north of Interstate 640 and Sharps Ridge in North Knoxville, has had multiple name changes and locations, Rehagen said, Formerly known as Whittle Springs Methodist, it was relocated to its current site in the mid-1950s because of planned road construction. The sanctuary area where most of damage occurred was built in 1960, he said.

Although the physical damage to the church was not as severe as it could have been, church members are suffering from the emotional loss, the pastor said.

"The newscasters said it was only minor damage, but to us it was major,” Rehagen said. “I was in shock as deeply as anybody else the day of the fire, but the Lord sent people by me and to me.”

This started with the woman, Christine BonDyl, who noticed the fire. “I never got to meet her but I talked to her on the phone,” said Rehagen, who was shopping for office supplies when the fire occurred. “She saved our church to tell you the truth.”

Several concerned community members have called, and Knoxville District Superintendent Doug Fairbanks visited the church on Sunday, Aug. 3, to offer comforting words.

One neighborhood church offered to allow St. Andrews, which averages 35-40 in worship, to use its building. Instead, the congregation will use its own fellowship hall for worship.

"We are doing pretty good considering everything we have to take care of,” added Rehagen.