A six-alarm fire tore through a historic, 128-year-old Reformed church in the East Village early Saturday morning.
Firefighters rushed to Middle Collegiate Church on East 7th Street and Second Avenue following reports of a fire at an empty, nearby building—48 East 7th Street—that began just before 5 a.m, FDNY told Gothamist. The fire soon spread to the church, triggering more alarms. A total of nearly 200 firefighters from 44 units had converged on the scene.
Crews battled the large blaze under a steady rain, with fire trucks extending to the top of the church, with water hoses cutting through the church's steeple. FDNY said four firefighters were injured battling the blaze. No civilians have been reported injured.
"We are going to be operating here for a while. The fire is under investigation by our marshals,” FDNY Assistant Chief John Hodgens said from the scene of the fire, according to a post on the FDNY's Facebook page.
As the fire raged, Rev. Jacqui Lewis, senior pastor of the church, wrote on Twitter that the congregation is "devastated and crushed that our beloved sanctuary at Middle Collegiate Church has burned."
She added, "And yet no fire can stop Revolutionary Love."
Amanda Ashcraft, a minister of the church, told WABC-TV that God is weeping right now.
"I know in moments like this, especially in a year where we've seen so much racial and economic injustice, compounded with the global pandemic, people have been asking where's God and why God," Ashcraft said. "And this is not anything that makes God happy, not part of God's plan. And God will be right here with us as we rebuild from this moment."
The smell of smoke woke up Anne Maguire, who lives across the street. "I got up and checked the apartment and about five minutes later saw the burning embers and flames reflected in window of building next door," she said. At first, she couldn't figure out where the fire was, and called 911 and a neighbor to alert her.
"Fires in all these old buildings in East Village terrify me. It’s devastating that this church was so badly damaged," she added.
There was a previous fire at 48 East 7th Street, which sits at the corner of Second Avenue next to the church, on February 10th earlier this year. The building had two restaurants on the ground floor, and 15 units, according to EV Grieve. The winter fire did not impact the church.
At least five people were injured in the February fire. At the time, a resident told EV Grieve, "According to my super, building has much smoke and water damage. Will take about a year to restore the building." The Department of Buildings issued a full vacate order on February 10th, 2020, which then became a partial vacate on March 30th, allowing occupants to return to the building to collect their belongings.
According to its website, Middle Collegiate Church is among the oldest congregation of the city's Collegiate Churches first established in 1628 whose infamous members purchased the island of Manhattan from the Lenape tribe for $24. The organization is considered the oldest corporation in the country, "established by royal charter from King William III of England in 1696."
The first Middle Collegiate Church was built on Nassau Street between Cedar and Liberty avenues in 1729, with another in 1839. The current church was built in 1892. The church is home to the New York City Liberty Bell that marked the birth of the United States. It rings during solemn moments, including the deaths of American presidents, inaugurations, and the remembrance of the 9/11 terror attacks.
Maurice Russell met his husband Jorge Fontanez at the church in 2002, and was married there in 2013.
“It’s heartbreaking. There are so many memories inside,” he said. “It’s just such a neighborhood cornerstone — rich, poor, gay, straight, multi-ethnic — everyone is welcome.”
On Saturday afternoon, he prayed with other congregants on the other side of Second Avenue, as firefighters continued to hose down the building. He said the church would maintain its community-focused mission, regardless of the fire.“The church is on this side of the street,” he told Gothamist, “not that side of the street.”
Additional reporting by Jake Offenhartz. This story has been updated to reflect that the fire has been classified as a six-alarm fire.