On May 20, 2004, lightning struck the steeple of the 144-year-old First Presbyterian Church sanctuary in Pittsford, New York. The resulting fire would quickly spread through the sanctuary attic, challenging firefighters, the water distribution system, and the mutual-aid system’s effectiveness. Fires in churches are rare, but expect unique challenges and problems when such a fire breaks out; this fire presented many.


(1) Preplanning photo of the First Presbyterian Church, A side. Left to right: the nursery school, the sanctuary, the foyer building, and the general-use building. (Photo by author.)

The First Presbyterian Church is located in a historic village just off a main street. The front entrance is located on one side street and the parking lot is located on another. As a result, the real main entrance is in the rear by the parking lot. The structure was built in the 1800s and was struck by lightning in 1861. The subsequent fire burned down the church, leaving only the masonry exterior walls. A major renovation occurred in 1966 when an upper-level choir loft was added in the rear of the sanctuary using steel framing and lightweight trusses in the sanctuary attic. The present complex consisted of five two-story buildings, including the sanctuary, a foyer building on the D side, a nursery school on the B side, a general-use building connected to the foyer building, and a church office building attached to the general use building. The sanctuary was the largest building, measuring 48 by 92 feet with a peaked roof 45 feet high and a 120-foot-high steeple on the A-D corner. Most of the area inside the sanctuary was open with a ceiling height of 27 feet. The upper-level choir loft was located above the pews in the rear. A large attic space above the sanctuary was accessible by two small scuttle openings. Only the first 14 feet in the front and rear of this attic space had floorboards. Heavy timber trusses, installed after the 1861 fire, spanned the front part of the sanctuary attic and were 14 feet apart. The presence of these trusses was not recognized until after the fire. There were no web members, and two steel cables held parallel members in compression. Trusses were connected by large timber purlins that supported the rafters and the roof deck. Lightweight trusses were used in the rear of the attic above the choir loft. Asphalt shingles covered the sanctuary roof, and a ridge vent ran along the peak from the front to the rear (photo 1).


(2) The C side. Firefighters withdrew from the sanctuary roof and made an inspection cut on the foyer building. (Photo by Tim Karninsky.)

Just after 2020 hours, lightning struck the steeple, setting off the building’s fire alarms and sending an automatic notification to the fire department. Three church groups were in the complex at the time, including 30 people in the sanctuary choir loft, who were in the most danger. The others groups were located elsewhere in the complex and were not in immediate danger. As people inside the sanctuary began to investigate the lightning strike, the Pittsford (NY) Fire Department was dispatched at 2026 hours to an automatic alarm at the church; two engines responded. Command officers arrived within two minutes and saw light smoke showing from the sanctuary attic. People were running out of the exits and reporting that others were still inside. All additional units from the fire department were dispatched, including two engines, a ladder, a quint, and a rescue company, as command reported a working fire.


Numerous problems and concerns complicated initial size-up, particularly rescue. With five buildings and multiple exits into two different streets, accountability and search and rescue for the people inside were immediate concerns and ongoing processes. Although fire was developing very quickly in the attic space, no smoke or fire was visible below in the sanctuary. Initially, some people did not realize the danger they were in and disregarded the alarms. The weather, rain and lightning, may also have made people reluctant to evacuate.

(3) The C side. Firefighters were withdrawn from all buildings and a personnel accountability report was made before beginning the exterior attack. (Photo by Tim Karninsky.)

Hydrants were located very close to the building on the front and rear streets. Two engines quickly arrived on-scene, but the rest of the assignment was delayed as additional equipment responded after receiving updated information of a working fire.

(4) The C side. Roof collaspe occurred about 40 minutes into the fire. (Photo by Tim Karninsky.)

Two exposure buildings, the nursery school on the B side and the foyer building on the D side, were connected to the sanctuary. Roof lines between these three buildings had some common parts, indicating the possibility that a large attic space existed between all of the buildings. Soon after arrival, a small area of flames quickly developed out of the ridge vent toward the rear of the sanctuary at the C side. Small flames were also visible on the D side above a stained-glass window, adjacent to the foyer building where the lightning had exited the attic and followed a downspout into the ground.


Command and Accountability were established on the A side. Command requested mutual aid from the Bushnell’s Basin Fire Department for a FAST engine and a ladder tower. The FAST set up on the A side; the ladder tower was assigned to the C side.

(5) The C side. Rain downpours occurring during the incident hampered firefighting efforts. (Photo by Sonny Love.)

The first engine on-scene connected a large-diameter hose (LDH) and two three-inch hoses to the hydrant (“a big-fire hookup,” designed to maximize hydrant performance) on the A side of the church. The crew began operating a 212-inch portable deck gun to the area on the D side of the sanctuary where flames were visible from the attic above a stained-glass window. They spent less than one minute knocking down these flames and slowed fire spread working with water from the engine’s booster tank.

After all visible flames from that part of the roof were extinguished, the crew headed inside to search for people still inside and for access into the fire area. Members stretched a 212-inch handline into the area. This engine was designated the base pumper, since it was connected to the hydrant and was believed to have a reliable water supply. Initial attack lines were pulled from it.

The second-in engine laid into the A side from another hydrant and prepared to supply the incoming ladder company, which set up near the steeple to protect it from any advancing flames. Command established a rear sector on the C side and ordered the third-in engine to make a big-fire hookup at the hydrant there. This engine supplied water to the mutual-aid ladder tower on the C side. A crew went to the roof to cut a large vent hole above the sanctuary attic. Additional interior crews went inside to search for access to the attic fire area. During this time, additional dry handlines were stretched from the A side entrance to the foyer building to await deployment.


About nine minutes into the incident at 2035 hours, Pittsford received another automatic alarm. Because of a miscommunication, the Pittsford quint responded to investigate the alarm along with a mutual-aid engine company; that alarm was set off by the weather. As a result, the quint was delayed in responding to the church fire and was never fully deployed on-scene.

(6) Inside the front of the sanctuary the next day. A portable deck gun was used on hot spots. [Photo by Burr Lewis, courtesy of the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle.]

It was soon discovered that the base pumper’s hydrant on the A side had static pressure but would not produce any water flow. After investigation, it was determined that another water source was needed. Command was notified, and the fourth-in engine, originally sent to the A side, was ordered to back down and lay out to another hydrant on the main street farther away. As this engine began doing this, it developed an electrical problem and was placed out of service at the scene.

A mutual-aid engine with LDH from Mendon Fire Department was called to the scene. Command decided to obtain a reliable water source from a 20-inch water main just outside the village, some 1,800 feet away from the scene. Two mutual-aid engines worked together to complete this hoselay to supply the base pumper.

Interior sectors in the building report that all occupants were out of the building within the first 15 minutes, but there were problems finding access to the fire area. Church members were queried but did not know how to access the attic area where the fire was burning. An interior crew eventually found access to the attic fire area but soon reported back to Command that this access could not be used. They would need to fit through an 18- by 24-inch scuttle and climb three dilapidated ladders to reach the attic floor. A thermal imaging camera aimed into the attic space showed extreme heat conditions.

The roof crew had begun to cut a vent hole and had already removed a section of the ridge vent. It began to downpour, and they were almost washed off the roof, even with roof ladders in place. They withdrew to the safety of the roof over the foyer building, but the rain continued, and they were unable to complete the vent hole.


Heavy flames were now venting from the roof area where a vent hole had been started. The roof crew was ordered to come down after completing a quick inspection hole on the foyer building, the exposure building on the D side (photo 2).

Interior crews were ordered out of the sanctuary. They withdrew to the second floor of the foyer building and began pulling the ceiling in the area adjacent to the sanctuary, discovered smoke, but found a masonry block firewall and no visible fire. They also located a rear attic scuttle access that led to the attic space above the sanctuary. Crews made their way into the attic and found heavy smoke, limited heat, and no visible fire. They called for a handline; a three-inch hose with a gated wye was stretched from the second-in engine, which was now functioning as the base pumper. This engine had laid in two three-inch supply lines from a hydrant at the next cross street. This interior crew called for water and connected a 134-inch handline from a hotel pack to the gated Y, but no water came. This engine also reported insufficient water volume to supply the line. It was quickly determined that the hydrant from which they had laid in was also defective.

At 2100 hours, Command ordered everyone out of all buildings and requested a personnel accountability report before beginning exterior operations. Two of the initial hydrants hit could not deliver a sufficient volume of water for even one small handline. Water had not been placed on the fire for approximately 30 minutes (photo 3).


After all interior crews were quickly accounted for, we began an exterior attack. A new action plan was developed to address new needs. To begin with, a reliable water supply had to be established for both engines operating on the A side. Also, safety officers set up collapse zones using barrier tape. Next, the EMS sector set up a rehab zone in an adjacent building. Last, the fire control plan was to stop the fire from entering connected exposure buildings and the steeple without unnecessarily breaking any stained-glass windows. To achieve fire control, we requested additional mutual aid.

On the A side, two mutual-aid engines provided an 1,800-foot LDH lay to supply one of the Pittsford engines. This engine pumped to a ladder pipe operation. After quickly removing a round stained- glass window to the sanctuary attic at front of the building, the ladder flowed water through this opening as well as along the roof to protect the steeple. We called for additional engines from the East Rochester Fire Department and the Brighton Fire Department. These engines assisted with water supply and relayed to the second Pittsford engine on the A side that was also connected to a bad hydrant. After water was supplied, the Pittsford engine operated several 212-inch handlines to knock down fire through the front doors of the sanctuary.

On the C side, the rear sector, the mutual-aid ladder tower, operating on the C/D corner, began operating an elevated master stream through a round attic window into the rear of the sanctuary attic. Another mutual-aid ladder tower was requested to assist in the rear. The Fairport Fire Department responded and set up a position in the B/C corner. As this ladder tower approached the scene, smoke conditions along the access street had made visibility so poor that the crew had to walk the truck in for safety. The ladder tower was supplied with water by two mutual-aid engines from Bushnell’s Basin Fire Department. These engines combined to lay LDH some 2,600 feet away from the scene and obtained a reliable water main outside the village water grid. An engine from the Penfield Fire Department and another engine from the Brighton Fire Department were requested to stand by in reserve at the nearby Pittsford Fire Station.


A major collapse of the attic occurred at 2115 hours, just after the 40-minute mark. Several of the large timber trusses in the middle of the sanctuary failed, leaving a small section of roof remaining by the steeple and toward the rear above the choir loft. This caused a dramatic fire spread to the pew area and the choir loft, with fire buried below the collapsed roof (photos 4, 5).

In the rear sector, crews operated handlines into the first-floor windows to control the fire. A crew was sent up to the B side exposure building to cut inspection holes on that roof; an interior crew went inside this building to check for fire spread. No fire was found in either location.

On the A side, a crew was sent into the D side exposure building to check for fire spread. They rechecked the second-floor ceiling and found serious fire spread into that area. Although the firewall extended four feet above the ceiling, it was three feet short of the roof, resulting in a common attic space between this building and the sanctuary. A 134-inch handline was deployed to stop the fire. Another crew checked for fire spread in the basement by breaking sanctuary basement windows; the fire had not spread to this area.


By 2219 hours, most of the fire was knocked down; it was under control by 2256 hours. Mindful of the recent tragedy in which two Pittsburgh firefighters were killed in the line of duty at a church fire when the steeple collapsed after a serious fire, we developed an overhaul plan with caution in mind. With the roof no longer intact and large sections of roof hanging from the top of the masonry exterior walls, there was concern that the B and D side walls would collapse.

Fire and church officials developed a plan for final extinguishment, seeking a structural engineer’s advice on the structural integrity of the sanctuary. Based on the engineer’s assessment, a portable deck gun with a small firefighting crew was deployed inside the front of the building, where the roof was still somewhat intact, to extinguish the fire. The crew operated for a time with limited effect on penetrating the deep-seated fire. Class A foam was then introduced; it proved more effective. By 0130 hours, only one engine remained on-scene and worked through the night. The fire department left the scene at 1300 hours the next day (photo 6).


Exterior operations. With limited resources first on-scene and a quickly developing fire in a large, inaccessible attic area, the decision to hit the fire from the outside initially with a portable deck gun worked well, slowing the fire’s progress and giving crews about 20 minutes for interior operations. Much of this time was spent evacuating people who did not leave when the fire alarm sounded.

Mutual aid. Many problems such as inoperable hydrants, bad weather, and apparatus problems were encountered early in this fire. A strong mutual-aid system was effective. Each time a problem developed, mutual aid was called and provided a solution.

Weather. The rain did not slow the fire spread and hampered many exterior operations. Because of the rain, roof ventilation could not be completed. Rain also created visibility problems because smoke was pushed down and held near the ground. Additionally, after realizing that the attic space was not accessible from the inside, Command considered using a cellar pipe to operate through holes on the roof to stop the fire. This might have been effective, but weather conditions did not allow for further roof operations.

Water supply. Large-diameter hose for long hoselays successfully overcame the poor water distribution system. It was always known that water would be a problem with old, small-diameter mains. Because of this, mutual aid was requested for long hoselays with LDH to wider mains outside the area. The department is considering purchasing LDH to address the water supply issue. The department met with the water authority to address water distribution problems, but the water authority was unwilling to make changes because of the expense.

Communications. Portable radio communications were difficult, since interior operations and water supply used one radio channel. Interior operations required a lot of radio time, but engines also needed to communicate and address water issues. At this fire, water supply was a major operation and should have used a separate radio channel.

Trusses. The collapse of the sanctuary attic occurred about 45 minutes after lightning ignited a fire. Failure of the large timber trusses occurred just after elevated master streams began operating from the outside into the front and rear attic windows. Evidence indicated that truss failure resulted from heavy fire and hydraulic pressure from the master streams.

Firewalls. Firewalls cannot be trusted. Initially, it was thought that a firewall existed between the sanctuary and the foyer building through the attic space. Although the firewall extended several feet above the suspended ceiling, it stopped three feet below the roof. The first time it was checked, crews found smoke and could not see this opening. They also tried to confirm the height with pike poles that were too short for the tall attic space. They knew this had to be rechecked. When they returned, heavy fire spread was found in the attic area of the foyer building. This fire was extinguished and did not spread farther into the foyer building.

(7) The D side. Exterior walls are braced to avoid collapse. Note the hole by downspout where lightning exited the sanctuary and went to ground (Photo by Lisa DiBona).

Overhaul. After the fire was under control, there was much concern about how to safely overhaul and extinguish existing pockets of fire. Two exterior masonry walls were now unsupported and there was a fear that their collapse could lead to a steeple collapse. Structural engineers called in to evaluate the burned-out building that night felt there would be no further collapse. Based on this advice, we implemented an overhaul and final extinguishment plan using limited personnel and a portable deck gun in a “safe” position inside the unburned part of the sanctuary. This worked and allowed for final extinguishment. However, the next day, an engineer from the reconstruction company had a different opinion about the stability of the unsupported walls. Based on his advice, the exterior walls were braced before any work was begun inside to clean out rubble. Although this operation was successful and no serious injuries occurred, keep in mind that two Pittsburgh firefighters were killed in a similar situation when the steeple collapsed several hours into the fire (photos 7).

Preplanning. Had the building been preplanned, it would have been possible to identify the scuttle, which provided access to the attic area.

Water supply. It is critical that fire departments ensure that the local water company properly maintain hydrants in good working order.

SCOTT JOERGER is a lieutenant with the Rochester (NY) Fire Department and chief of the Pittsford (NY) Volunteer Fire Department. A former wildland firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service, he has a bachelor’s degree in management and an associate’s degree in fire protection.

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