I've covered thousands of stories over 15 years but none touched home as deeply as I experienced on Saturday. I wakened to find that Calvary Baptist Church was on fire.
Not only am I a member of the church, but ironically I had written a profile of the Calvary Baptist Church's history in the weekend paper to go along with the church's Vacation Bible School photos.
Rev. Walter Laseter said Calvary Baptist is more than a beautiful church, and that became the headline. Now, it seems very ironic. The irony wasn't lost on most of the multiple television crews, who photographed the news article for their segment.
Also ironic was a sign in front of the church, "I won't give you more than you can handle. You might bend, but you will not break." Everyone seemed to notice the words on the sign.
It was horrible to arrive on the scene, just across from my office, and see flames rising from the ceiling of the third floor. Multiple units from the Emporia, Jarratt, and Lawrenceville Volunteer Fire Departments came out in force when a call went out before 6:30 a.m. on Saturday.
The scene seemed unreal. Already many members of the church, along with numerous residents, had already gathered across the street and were watching in shock as the historic old church burned uncontrollably.
Over and over again firefighters such as Jason Slagle and Billy Daniels shot water on the roof. Several brave firefighters climbed on the roof risking their lives to try to save the church's sanctuary.
As soon as I arrived I realized that there was no way the firemen could save the oldest part of the church, which is three stories.
When a building that old catches fire there isn't a lot anyone can do but watch and try to contain the fire from spreading to nearby buildings. In this case, there was a wall between the old sanctuary and the newer sanctuary.
Fire Chief Chris Rawlings was determined to save the sanctuary if any way at all possible...and with the help of numerous firefighters, at least part of the church still stands and only has some water and smoke damage.
The fire was intense. The firefighters wrestled the fire all day while more and more people stopped to watch. Many members, myself included, wept. Many men were seen wiping away a tear from their eye when they thought nobody was watching.
People huddled together in groups to watch and talk about their fond memories of the church. The tragedy affected not only church members but also the community.
By 10 a.m. I was starving, having had no breakfast. I knew the firefighters and volunteers of Greensville Rescue Squad had been there longer than I so while updating the Independent-Messenger's Facebook page on the church's status, I noted that the volunteers had to be hungry and asked local businesses for help.
A few minutes later food and beverages began arriving and continued to arrive all day until the last of the firefighters finally packed up their gear and left.
If anything can be said for this community it is that the people step up to help each other when there is a need, whether strangers or friends...and perhaps even enemies. Emporia and Greensville County knows how to stick together, as evidenced by local churches such as
Emmanuel Worship Center, Main Street Baptist, First Presbyterian and Mount Vernon Baptist Church, who offered members a place to worship on Sunday morning.
The church congregation chose to hold service at Veterans Memorial Park instead because they wanted to be together and pray together in their time of need. The church's parking lot was still roped off because the church will continue to smolder for a couple of days.
Some people watched the tragedy unfold for 12 hours or more, unable to take their eyes off the church they loved so much.
Church members talked about how hard it was to watch the excavators tear down the burned part of the structure, some of which had just been rehabilitated. Part of the structure was torn down to keep the fire from spreading to the adjacent sanctuary.
Members tried to console Dr. Laseter, the church's preacher for the past 14 years, who has cancer. He looked as if he had the weight of the world on his shoulders then.
The fire is thought to be electrical and have started on the third floor.
It consumed choir robes, music and collection of hand bells donated by members, as well as the kitchen. It also resulted in the loss of two pianos and organ. Downstairs in under water so it is unknown what damage was done in that part of the building.
Dr. Laseter and church members were just glad that if the tragedy had to occur it wasn't on Sunday morning during worship service.
For most, their last memories of the church will be Vacation Bible School. Youth attended five nights in the building now destroyed, then sang and performed the duties of adults last Sunday during the service in the sanctuary.
About 80 children sang their hearts out for their families and the congregation that morning with no idea what would happen less than a week later.
Donations can be made to Calvary Baptist Church, 310 N. Main St. Emporia, Va. 23847.