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From the FWFC: The Ambler Trinity Church Fire of 1986

A dramatic retelling of the inferno, a quarter century later

From the FWFC: The Ambler Trinity Church Fire of 1986 From the FWFC: The Ambler Trinity Church Fire of 1986 From the FWFC: The Ambler Trinity Church Fire of 1986 From the FWFC: The Ambler Trinity Church Fire of 1986 From the FWFC: The Ambler Trinity Church Fire of 1986 From the FWFC: The Ambler Trinity Church Fire of 1986 From the FWFC: The Ambler Trinity Church Fire of 1986

The following was written by Denny Zwicker for the Fort Washington Fire Company newsletter, and shared with Patch to maximize public notice. To view and subscribe to the fire company's monthly newsletter, click here.

June 16, 1986 was a blistering hot Spring day, but for dozens of local volunteer firefighters, it was only going to get hotter.

In the early afternoon, one of the church members thought she smelled something electrical. She checked the building but didn’t find anything amiss…but something was very amiss. In the rear of the church, behind the stately altar, deep within the 88-year old walls near the massive pipe organ, something had sparked and it was growing.

It was a little past 4:00 p.m., and after a long day of meter reading for PECO, David Haggar, now an Assistant Fire Chief, but then a young 20-year old husband and father, was headed to his in-law’s house on Trinity Place to pick up his infant daughter. He had just arrived when he heard the dispatch on his pager and wheeled around to look in the direction of the church, only two blocks away. He handed his daughter back to her grandfather.

***

The congregation of the Trinity Episcopal Church can be traced back to 1891 when the church was known as the Trinity Mission. The members met in various locations around Ambler, including on property owned by Richard Mattison, the wealthy co-founder of the Keasbey and Mattison Company.

In 1898, Dr. and Mrs. Mattison decided to finance the building of a grand church in memory of their late daughter, Esther Victoria. It would be erected on Bethlehem Pike directly across from Dr. Mattison’s magnificent estate, “Lindenwold.”

The cornerstone was laid in September, 1898 and the church was consecrated on February 3, 1901. While the exterior of the church was a unique brown and pink stone, the inside was wood, much of which was imported from Europe. It was old and heavily varnished for almost 90 years and there was enough wood in the building to seed a small forest. Now it was burning.

***

Dave Haggar looked up the street to see brownish-black smoke belching from the church. He donned the turnout gear he kept in his car and waited to grab an air pack from the first arriving engine. Dave recalls that he and former Fort Washington firefighters Dave Hildebrand, Eric Johnson and Fran Junod entered the building through a door on the “B” (left) side of the structure with a 2 ½” handline.

Dave remembers climbing over pews and looking up to see brilliant red fire, the most vivid red flames he has ever seen. They appeared to be blowing from behind the large stained glass window over the altar. Dave also remembers the roar. It was like a freight train was barreling down on them. Dave doesn’t remember exactly how long the four of them held their position in a desperate attempt to save the church but he remembers why they backed out.

No, it was not the hand of God that grabbed the collar of his turnout coat that afternoon and started yanking him toward the front doors, it was the hand of George. George Haggar, his uncle and former long-time Fire Chief, did not like what he was seeing from outside the burning building. Recognizing a losing cause when he saw one and possibly fearing a flashover, he “leather lunged” it into the church, informed the young crew that “You’ll never get this one, kid” and escorted them to the doors.

It was not a moment too soon. Seconds later, the super-heated gases inside the massive sanctuary exploded in a flashover that blew all four men out the front door and down the steps. Helmets and air masks went sailing and Firefighters Hildebrand, Johnson and Junod went to the hospital to be checked out, none sustaining serious injuries.

Another casualty of the flashover were the dozens of priceless stained glass windows, and with the windows gone, the fire now had a limitless amount of oxygen to feed upon. Firefighting operations went defensive, with the goal now to contain the fire to the church and protect the surrounding buildings.

If conditions inside the church were bad, conditions on the roof were worse, and that is where then Fort Washington Firefighter Dave Brooke found himself surrounded by fire following the flashover. Recognizing his predicament, the firefighters on the ground trained their hoselines on him until he could be plucked to safety by Fort Washington’s tower ladder.

The air pack straps melted to his turnout coat were testament to how much heat the shaken, but unhurt, Dave Brooke endured. Dave continues to serve the community today as a member of the Whitemarsh Township Board of Supervisors.

Despite valiant efforts that almost cost five Fort Washington firefighters their lives, there was no saving Trinity that afternoon. It can be argued that old churches are “built to burn”. Largely un-sprinklered, once a fire takes hold, especially in the sanctuary part of the building, with highly oiled wood and soaring ceilings, it is impossible to fight using conventional firefighting methods and tools.

The fire was estimated to have been burning for at least two hours prior to first dispatch. It was contained to the church and injuries were minor, primarily heat exhaustion. While the church was deemed a total loss, within a few years an equally beautiful new church rose from the ashes on the same site.

Some Facts about the Fire

• Over 200 emergency personnel responded
to this event including firefighters,
fire police, police officers, EMTs/
Paramedics, fire marshals and representatives
from various agencies.

• Approximately a dozen local fire companies
sent firefighters and/or fire police.

• The fire was contained in approximately
3 hours but not extinguished until the
next day.

• As much as 10,000 feet of hose was
laid, stretching from Butler Ave. south to
Skippack Pike.

• At the height of the fire water was flowing
at the rate of 3,000 – 4,000 gallons
per minute.

• The Ambler water system was practically
sucked dry.

• When the fire started the temperature
was 90 degrees.

• Twenty-five firefighters were treated at
the scene for heat exhaustion.

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