October 22, 2021

Firefighters lend help after church fire

Cortland Fire Department members Dustin Contri and Jim Zelsnack hand out free pizza Monday at their main station on Court Street to help out the Loaves and Fishes organization, which couldn’t serve its daily lunch program because of Friday’s fire at the Grace and Holy Spirit Church, located next to the fire station. Waiting for their lunch are, left to right, 4-year-old Heaven Henry, Lisa Walker, Pam Weeks and Tiana Fink with baby Ariel Weeks.

Bob Ellis/staff photographer

The Blodgett Mills Road bridge spanning the Tioughnioga River in Blodgett Mills, with noticable patches of concrete missing Friday, is one of the bridges targeted to be replaced with federal funding through the draft Statewide Transportation Improvement Program, said Cortland County Highway Superintendent Phil Krey.

Before the smoke settled in the Grace and Holy Spirit Church, at13 Court St., after an overheated fan apparently caused a fire inside Friday, city firefighters volunteered to keep the Loaves and Fishes program going, said the Rev. Peter Williams, pastor of the church.

Twelve boxes of sheet pizzas, countless bags of popcorn and kegs of water and lemonade filled half a bay of the main fire station Monday afternoon to do just that.

The church hosts the Loaves and Fishes soup kitchen six days a week, providing lunch Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, dinner on Wednesdays and Fridays and a large bag of food on Saturdays.

On average, 70 people rely on the program, said Kim Hill, Loaves and Fishes director.

James Bobik, of Cortland, is one of those people, and with a piece of pizza in hand and a smile on his face he said Monday he was grateful for the fire department hosting the program. He normally goes to the church for the Loaves and Fishes meals as he is in the process of looking for a job and the program allows him to save money by getting a good free meal.

“This is great,” Bobik said. “I wasn’t sure if they (the church) were going to do anything after the fire.”

The Cortland Professional Firefighters Association came up with the idea to help keep the program going and it was able to work out a time to use the fire station, located near the church, according to association President Derek Reynolds.

He said all members of the union pitched in their own money to purchase the food and drinks. Every firefighter at the station also volunteered his or her time to help with the lunch, which ran from 11:30 a.m. to1:30 p.m.
“This is wonderful,” Hill said. “The firefighters wanted to help out and volunteered out of the blue because they knew the soup kitchen was out of commission.”

The Loaves and Fishes program will continue at the United Presbyterian Church, at 25 Church St., along with the 12-step groups. The Grace and Holy Spirit Church building may be out of commission until December, said Gwen Barbato, senior warden at the church.

Extensive smoke damage: Barbato said the entire church sustained extensive smoke damage, more than she had realized. The whole church needs to be cleaned out and will require repairs in the vestibule area, the location of the fire. The cleanup process began Monday, with Servpro on site, which could take three to four months to complete, according to Adam Bennett, senior project manager for the company.

Barbato said that no official dollar estimate of damage has been established. Bennett added that Servpro is just starting the gut and clean out process, but the extent of the damage well exceeds the early unofficial estimate of $100,000.

Once the cleanup is complete, Dryden-based Crown Construction Inc. will be doing the repairs on the building, Barbato said. She hopes to see the church reopened by Christmas time.

And the extra help of local community members is moving that along, as about seven people volunteered their time Monday morning to moving boxes and helping with inventory.

“Many people from the community have been coming out of the blue to help,” Barbato said. “The community outreach has been astonishing.”

Members of the Cortland Fire Investigation Division determined the cause of the fire, which started around 1 p.m. Friday, to be caused by a fan that had malfunctioned, according to Fire Chief Charles Glover.

About 10 people were in the building at the time of the fire, but they were evacuated without injury. One woman had been treated for mild smoke inhalation, according to the Cortland Fire Department.

Williams said the church is very thankful for the service of the fire department, because as everyone ran out of the building, the firefighters ran in.

The church is insured and should have no financial issues with the repairs, according to Williams.

For the immediate future, services will be held at the Interfaith Center, at 7 Calvent St., near the SUNY Cortland campus.