Syracuse firefighters extinguished burning material near the podium and altar at the Methodist Church Jan. 5, but were ordered out after fire burst into the frigid, open air from the ceiling above them.

Two Syracuse firefighters crept through the smoke of the burning Methodist Church on the coldest night of the year Jan. 5 and began to extinquish a clump of flames on the floor when Fire Chief Bruce Neeman realized the heart of the fire was above them in the rafters.

Smoke obscured the path for firefighters Adam Holz and Tim Seelhoff as they entered the 105-year-old building hoping to put a quick end to the fire. A boy scout leader and church pastor had reported smoke, but no one had seen any flames. The firefighters hoped for a quick end to the crisis.

“When we were first in we couldn't see much at all. We were dragging hose up there and finally to an open door  to the sanctuary,” Holz said. “Then we saw flame on the platform, between the podium and altar.”

Holz, who works the parts counter at Stutheit Implement, said it looked like the fire was coming from below, so they thought it had started in the basement. They advanced and put out the flames on the platform.

During a brief clearing of the smoke canopy, however, they realized the fire was falling from above them and had spread to the walls.

“They tried to fight it from there, but we ended up pulling them out,” said Neeman.
“I knew it was in the attic. We had flames coming out of the roof near the chimney, so we pulled them out for safety reasons,” he said.

From that point on, the struggle to save the church focused on an exterior attack that included an aerial truck from Nebraska City and firefighters from Dunbar,  Otoe, Unadilla, Palmyra and Syracuse.

The fire was first detected by a Boy Scout leader arriving to prepare for a meeting. He alerted Pastor Gary Ganger and they investigated together.

There was a lot of smoke and Neeman said when he arrived shortly after 6:20 p.m. and opened the east door there was only smoke.

When the fire pierced through the roof and met the near-zero air and high wind, it began to spread quickly.

Firefighters were still scrambling up ladders carrying hoses to the top of the education center, an addition built for classrooms and offices, when a portion of the east wall collapsed.

Firefighters were still arriving and more water was being staged, but the fire worked its way across the entire roof.

Neeman said the fire did not spread to the addition, so he felt comfortable with staging the firefighters on its roof.

Neighboring St. John's Church opened its doors to offer a place to warm up and Neeman said somehow food started to show up. The Syracuse Elementary School was also opened through the night to provide an escape from the cold.

Neeman said the Syracuse Rescue Squad was much appreciated for its attention to those at the scene.