Church Fire

Photo by Colleen Williamson
Photo by Colleen Williamson

By Colleen Williamson
Parsons Sun - March 23, 2017

 

A scorched acoustic guitar, only three strings remaining and covered in soot, laid beside the charred remains of Jesus Name House of Prayer, whose few remaining wall studs reached toward the sky like long, cracked, blackened fingers poking through a bed of ashes Tuesday.

 

Through a broken window at the back of the church, a few smoke- and water-damaged books sat upon a sagging shelf adjacent to a cabinet with its singed doors ajar, exposing colorful, half-melted building blocks —the little that remains of the church and its contents.

 

An addition to the back of the church remained partially standing, though collapsed ceilings and roof covered the contents of every room except the living room, wherein was the door on which passerby George Berry pounded early Friday morning in an effort to rouse pastors James and Diane Wethey, who were sleeping, oblivious to the danger that had been spreading quickly toward them.

 

“I was on my way home from work,” Berry said. “The main thing is I don’t work nights usually. We had something we had to do, and we happened to pick that night to do it. I live about two blocks from the church, across the highway, on Locust. The church is on Walnut. On my way home I was driving down U.S. 166, and when I got ready to turn off, I looked over and saw fire. At first I thought it was a big bonfire. … When I got closer I saw it was the church. I passed the fire station so knew no one had called, so I called 911.”

 

Berry pulled around to the front of the church and saw fire coming out of the roof.

 

There were flames lapping out of the front boards, and he could see the fire behind the front doors.

 

“It was a goin’,” Berry said. “I talked to 911 and noticed the car. The preacher and his wife lived in the back. When I got out to bang on the door to get them up and out, the fire had reached halfway through the church by that time.

 

“They were asleep. I told them they needed to move their car, because it was right next to it. I told them to grab their wallets or whatever but told them ‘Hurry, let’s go,’” Berry recalled. “I got her out. He came out and then went back in. I was trying to get him out. By then the electric got hit with the fire, which shut it off, so it turned dark. The place was filling up with smoke, and I couldn’t find him, and I was yelling for him to come on.”

 

Pastor Wethey emerged.

 

“It was 1:09 a.m., the last time I talked to 911,” Berry said. “By 1:30, the flames were already in the part where they lived.”

 

Mrs. Wethey said the wind was blowing hard, fanning the flames that were quickly consuming the church’s more than 150-year-old wooden frame.

 

“It got us. It destroyed our home and the church,” she said. “Our apartment is burnt up on the inside, but one wall is still standing to our living room.”

 

Seeing the bedroom now where they slept that night is frightening. Smoke damage is everywhere and the ceiling collapsed on the bed where her husband had slept and atop the chair nearby where she had been sleeping.

 

“It was horrible,” Wethey said.

 

“My granddaughter lives with us, too. She’s 9 years old, but that night she spent the night with a cousin. She never, or hardly ever, goes anywhere,” she said, thanking God she had not been home.

 

Because of its age, the church could not be insured, Wethey said, “even though it was standing tall and straight and true.”

 

“We had a little bit of renter’s insurance for our personal stuff to help with a little bit of stuff like our clothes and replace our furniture. I don’t know when we will get that, but I’m glad we had that, anyway. Red Cross is the one that helped us so far. They gave us $500 to go to Wal-Mart. We’re staying at a motel in Parsons. It’s the only place we could find. … My husband is 72, and I’m 67, so it’s hard.”

 

“It’s all so sad, but the church comes first. Whatever we get in donations will go into building and then we come second,” she said. “The church and God are first in our life. That’s just the way we are.”

 

Anyone wishing to donate can send checks to P.O. Box 132, Chetopa, KS, 67336. Donations can also be made through the church’s page at www.gofundme.com.

 

“We are just wanting to rebuild,” Mrs. Wethey said.

 

The Kansas Office of the State Fire Marshal is investigating the fire, which is estimated to have resulted in a $50,000 loss. Once the investigation is complete, the site can be cleared, and it is hoped construction of a new church can begin.

 

While the loss of the church is devastating, the couple said they are glad to have made it out of their apartment alive, thanks to Berry.

 

“He’s my hero. I will never forget him,” Mrs. Wethey said. “He saved our lives. He came by the next day and just hugged us and cried.”

 

Berry takes no credit for saving the Wetheys.

 

“It wasn’t me. It was God. God put me there. God guided everything on that day. I ran out of gas, which made me run late to work, and so I ran later that night than I would have. I should have been done earlier. And then I went by the store because my wife wanted something from Wal-Mart. … It was just a bunch of coincidences. God guided every step of that,” Berry said.

 

“I feel thankful. It helps reaffirm my belief that God watches us and God guides us. Before I thought that but wasn’t for sure. Now, I’m pretty sure,” Berry said. “We’re all searching for that truth. That’s what I’d like to get across to people. God’s here. He’s watching. He’s guiding us. Don’t give up.”