Lightning sparks fire in historic NY church where Harriet Tubman once worshiped

Auburn Assistant Fire Chief Bill DiFabio said firefighters used an aggressive interior fire attack and were able to save the church and part of the nation's history

By Catie O'Toole
Syracuse Media Group, N.Y.

AUBURN, N.Y. — Lightning struck the top of a church with historical ties to Harriet Tubman during a storm Sunday in the city of Auburn, fire officials said Monday.

Thompson Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, at 49 Parker St., was damaged, but not destroyed in the fire, investigators said.

The National Park Service now owns the church, where Tubman once worshiped. Tubman’s funeral also was held there in 1913.


The Harriet Tubman church was struck by lightning and it started a fire in the steeple

Posted by Tim Race on Sunday, August 18, 2019

Plans to restore the church were underway when the fire sparked Sunday afternoon.

“It was caused by a lightning strike,” Auburn Assistant Fire Chief Ed Sherman said.

Auburn Fire Investigator Lt. Sam Giannettino said he came to that conclusion after closely examining the exterior of the church, as well as looking inside the bell tower. He noted there were several lightning strikes in the area at the time, as a storm swept through the area shortly before 3 p.m.

He ruled out all other possible causes, including arson because “the church was so well boarded up and secured.” Sherman also said there was “no easy access” to the bell tower, where the fire started. Fire investigators also ruled out electrical and gas-related issues because there was no electricity to the steeple where the fire started and there was no gas anywhere in the building.

Giannettino said he took photos from a “bucket” outside the church to get a better view of the exterior of the building. He also crawled into the bell tower and took photos of heavy char as he examined the interior. The southeast corner of the steeple was badly burned, he said, however other areas in the steeple appeared to be untouched and not burned.

While examining the steeple, Giannettino noticed a piece of a metal pole sticking up from where a cross was once secured. He couldn’t say for sure if the lightning struck the metal at the top of the steeple, but took note of it.

A video of the fire viewed more than 100,000 times on Facebook also helped investigators confirm the fire started in the steeple. There also was no char below that area.

Giannettino said he has reached out to the man who took the video, but he hasn’t heard back. He’s hoping to talk with him to find out what he heard and saw.

A neighbor called 911 at 2:58 p.m. Sunday to say he thought lightning had struck the Thompson Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church, which officials said was currently uninhabitable.

The National Park Service is self-insured and working to assess the damage.

Damage was contained to the steeple and can be repaired, Auburn Assistant Fire Chief Bill DiFabio said after the fire Sunday.

“This church has a national historical value, which could not have been replaced if the firefighters were not able to stop the fire,” DiFabio said. “But because it was noticed early and because the firefighters used an aggressive interior attack, they were able to save the church and part of Auburn’s — and the nation’s history.”


©2019 Syracuse Media Group, N.Y.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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