Hours before the sun rose in Turlock on Friday, firefighters from multiple agencies were battling a blaze that engulfed EQUIP Church of Turlock — and as the sun set, firefighters were breaking down walls to find and put out remaining embers in the almost 70-year old building.
A total of eight fire agencies and 45 firefighters were called in to help with the structure fire that was reported at 4:38 a.m. by someone who saw flames coming from the basement of the church located on the corner of Columbia and Orange streets.
Mary Bertken, a neighbor of the church since 1948, was awoken by the smell of smoke around 4:30 a.m., which was followed by the sound of fire engines. She said her husband got out of bed and said, "oh my God, the church is on fire."
Another neighbor said she woke up before the fire because she heard someone going through the trash cans along Orange Street. She said 10 minutes after watching the man collecting recyclables, she heard fire engines and saw smoke come rolling out of the basement of the church.
Emergency resources that included fire engines, two quintuple combination pumper engines (or quints as they are known), a ladder truck and the specialized crash engine responded from Turlock Rural, Denair, Hughson, Ceres, Patterson, Modesto and Stanislaus Consolidated to the call for mutual aid. When Turlock Fire arrived on scene, the structure was filled with heavy smoke and flames were coming out of the basement level. Within minutes, the fire had quickly spread to the attic where the building became fully involved. Modesto Fire’s airport crash vehicle was deployed to spread foam into the foundation in an attempt to subdue the fire in the sub flooring.
No one is believed to have been inside the church when it was on fire. The adjacent residents were evacuated as a precaution due to the proximity of the homes to the fully engulfed church building.
The roof of the church collapsed during the fire and the building is considered a total loss, which is valued at approximately $270,000, according to the City of Turlock. With the amount of water expended to extinguish the fire, there were also impacts to the neighboring properties.
The cause of the fire is still under investigation, and those with any information regarding the fire are asked to contact Turlock Police Detective Jason Tosta at 664-7324.
About 50 families belong to EQUIP Church of Turlock, which has been meeting at the Columbia Street location for the past three years.
"We're just heartbroken," said Sandy Hazenberg, wife of pastor Greg Hazenberg. "We did a lot of work to fix up the building."
In the midst of tragedy, however, came two miracles. Hazenberg said the firefighters asked her and her husband if there was one thing they could salvage from the building, something with sentimental value, what would it be.
A while later, the firefighters returned with a 6-foot tall wooden cross that Greg Hazenberg had made himself and the baby changing table that the Hazenbergs used while raising their own children and had recently brought down to the church.
"There's just a few black smudge marks on the cross; it's a miracle," said Sandy Hazenberg.
Members of EQUIP Church met at Columbia Park Friday evening for prayer and to talk about what's next for the church. According to Sandy Hazenberg, three different local churches offered for the congregation to join their respective churches or to use their buildings. What the church will eventually decide to do is unknown at this time, but they do plan to meet at Columbia Park again at 10 a.m. Sunday.
The fire is also a setback for Off the Hook Ministries, a non-profit ran by Sandy Hazenberg that aims to minister to felons, addicts and local youth. The ministry had planned to launch the first of its three-pronged approach by opening a tutoring center at the church building in September. A workforce training center was set to open in October, followed by a youth boxing program sometime in the future.
Hazenberg said those services will have to be put on hold while she finds a new building to house the ministry.
The future of the Columbia Street church property is also unknown. The building is owned by Pentecostal Pathfinders, a church that Turlock resident Mayra DeMartini said her parents founded in the 1970s and moved to the Columbia Street site in the early 1980s.
"This blew me away; my parents' church is going up in flames," said DeMartini about hearing the news of the fire on Friday.