The Night the Church Burned

A town mourns; firefighters experience
the dreaded backdraft

By Chris Harris

“The worst thing was how sad it was,” says Ted Powell, life member of the Northfield Fire Department, “because my beloved church was getting burnt up.”

The red phones rang late in the evening of Saturday, January 21st, 1978, sending Northfield firefighters to the historic Trinitarian Congregational Church that Dwight L. Moody built in 1888.

“When I pulled into the church parking lot from the north side,” says Chief Floyd M. (“Skip”) Dunnell, “you could see absolutely nothing: there’s no glow visible, no smoke. So I got out of my vehicle, got my gear on and went up to the building, at which time I could see and smell smoke.

“Part of my job as fire chief is to size the fire up, to try to determine what we’ve got for a fire and what we’re going to need as far as men and equipment. We already had a truck on the road, and they could see a raging fire on the south side of the church. What that meant was that smoke had built up so thick inside the church that it wouldn’t allow the reflection of flames to the north side. We had heavy smoke billowing out of the parish hall doors on the side. That smoke would push out and then suck back in, and that’s an indication that the building is what we call ‘ripe,’ meaning that there’s a good potential for a backdraft.”

Life member Walter Anson explains: “That’s when there’s a fire inside and initially there’s enough oxygen to sustain the fire, but as the fire consumes the materials, the temperatures become extremely elevated, well over a thousand degrees, and you start distilling combustible by-products. And then finally, because the building is relatively tight, the fire consumes most of the oxygen, so the flames go down to nothing, but the building becomes pressurized, if you will. One of the signs you look for when you come to a fire like that,” continues Anson, “is smoke billowing out of every nook and cranny.”

“I directed my men to stretch lines and I told them I was going to make a circle of the church,” recalls Skip. “I’d already requested mutual aid, I’d already requested an aerial truck from Turners Falls. We’d had a fairly substantial snowfall, and I’m trying to wade through it. I could see the fire at that point really blowing out the windows of what used to be the kitchen. So I’m making my way around to the back side of the new addition when I heard this rumble, deep within the church. I knew what was happening: an explosion was occurring deep down inside the church.”

David Quinn, Sr. was captain at the time. “When that thing began to go, you could hear the rumble and you knew that there was going to be a backdraft.” It is something that every firefighter trains for and hopes he never experiences.

“You could physically feel the building pulsating,” says David Quinn, Jr. Quinn, Jr. and Jack Ware had gained entry into the main body of the church through the north side door closest to the front. “We went in the side and then up a set of stairs to the very front of the church. We made it into the body of the church, but it was very hot in there. You could feel the pressure building and that’s when I said to Jack, ‘We’ve got to get out of this building because it’s going to go.’ I spun Jack around and I remember going down the stairs with Jack and we reached the threshold when the backdraft hit us. It blew Jack and me right across the parking lot. There was tons of snow, thank goodness, and the explosion just blew us into the snowbank.”

“That’s where snowbanks come in handy,” says life member Marvin Holloway.

A backdraft is actually a pressurized explosion. “It blew the roof of that church two feet right straight up in the air,” says Quinn, Jr. “There were two sets of doors on the front of the church. It blew both sets of doors across the street into the parking lot of the bank.”

Making his circle of the building, Skip was near the southeast corner. “I was still wading through snow about waist deep, so I couldn’t get away in time. I knew something bad was about to happen.”

It blew the chief 15 feet over an embankment.

The calls started going out over the radio for 28 R-1, and 28 R-1 wasn’t answering (see sidebar story). “The next thing I know,” says Skip, “I’m trying to clear the snow out from underneath my glasses and Dave Quinn Jr. was asking me if I was OK. I don’t know if I was unconscious or not for a short period of time; I had some pain in my back. I said I was all right and Dave said, ‘Nope, you’re going to the hospital.’”

“He was staggering, and walking kind of funny,” says Quinn, Jr., who was also an EMT. “I remember taking his glasses off and wiping the snow from his eyes, telling him that we were going to take him to the hospital. Of course, he was arguing that no, we weren’t, but we didn’t give him any choice. He took some pretty good hits to the back.”

Command passed to Captain Dave Quinn, Sr. “They came to me and said, ‘You’ve got it,’” says Dave, Sr. “I said, ‘We’ve got to surround it and drown it. There’s no way we’re going to stop this.’ It was fully engulfed. So we just kept pumping as much water as we could, and kept the guys as safe as we could. That’s all you could do: surround and drown.”

Skip returned to resume command. “They took me down, they checked me out, said I had wrenched my back muscles from the explosion and they wanted to keep me overnight. I said, ‘Well, I’m really not injured that much and I’d really like to get back to the job that I need to get done,’ expecting that there was still a fire to be fought. We were only gone maybe an hour total and when I came back, basically, the church was gone.”

Says Walter Anson, “We were there all night and a good deal of the next day, and basically at the end it was just wetting down the ashes and making sure it didn’t rekindle. By the time the fire was over, there was not much left.”

“That one really made me cry,” says life member Marvin Holloway. “I’d been there as a member so many years, then to see it go up in flames like that.”