Have you ever had one of those dreams that happens to line up with what is actually going on in the world around you? That happened to me the morning of Sunday, October 6. As I was sleeping in my room around 5:10 a.m., I distinctly remember having a dream about fighting a fire after hearing Canton’s fire siren sound off. (I have been fighting fires with the Canton Fire Department since my 18th birthday, when I was able to begin serving my community as an EMT and a firefighter.) Moments later, my phone was ringing and my heart sunk as soon as I woke up: I immediately knew that the fire siren was not something I dreamed and was why my mom was calling. I answered the call; she frantically asked me if I was out of bed.
She told me that there was a structure fire on campus: Gunnison Memorial Chapel. I had forgotten to turn my pager on before I went to bed that night so the initial pages didn’t wake me. I grabbed the pager, turned it on, took my housemate’s car keys and bolted out the door, waking up everyone else in my townhouse. Immediately, I could see the glow from the roof of the church with the flames reaching high and the spire outlined in green flames due to the copper shell burning.
My roommate’s car battery was dead so I bolted back home and was greeted by everyone in my townhouse, all who stood there in amazement and disbelief of what was unfolding in front of them. I got on my bike and took off across campus and the quad to where two of our fire trucks, Tower 1 and Engine 6, were just arriving. I called my dad, who is also in the fire department, and had him bring my gear along with him on Rescue 1.
I took a few moments to look up at the roof of Gunnison from the 9/11 memorial in front of Richardson Hall while I waited for my gear to arrive. The fire had changed from the green glow and was now reaching out from the joints in the cooper casing. Once my dad arrived with my gear, I quickly put it on and ran over to Tower 1 (T-1), which was now in position. I grabbed a safety belt and climbed up into the bucket of T-1 alongside firefighter/EMT Donny Thompson. We began to raise the bucket toward the steeple with a constant eye on it; everyone was concerned that the fire may have burned much of the support for the spire and that it could collapse at any moment.
Water was not immediately available for us to start attacking the fire, so once we were fully extended we had a chance to see what was really happening. The fire had spread through most of the roof above the bells and had raced up the spire. (I believe most people have seen the pictures taken from the cranes of the spire and surrounding views; these were most breathtaking at the time of the fire.) The sun was just starting to peak over the horizon with the view stretching for miles; next to me I realized was one of the most prominent features of our horizon, lit like a beacon.
We could tell that the entire inside was engulfed so we used our high-pressure water gun and peeled back some of the copper. Most of the fire was extinguished fairly quickly. Potsdam Fire and Ogdensburg Fire supplied their towers to attack the spire from different directions. The fire proved to be difficult with a couple locations on the spire being too high to reach with the hoses and water guns. Once we believed we could do all we could, we nested our ladder, and gathered with our fellow firefighters to learn the next plan of attack. We began overhaul (cleanup) inside by pumping water out of the basement and collecting water from the floor on the main level. Facilities helped out by bringing over many of their floor cleaners and we used tarps to redirect water running down the stairs from the bell tower out the doors. By this time, much of campus was starting to wake up and gather around the caution tape. Not many details were available to the public but it was evident to everyone that there was serious damage. Climbing the stairs through the bell tower proved difficult with the amount of water flowing down them, debris at every step.
At one point I noticed President Bill Fox, Dean Joe Tolliver and the Rev. Shaun Whitehead standing on the Quad. I walked over and filled them in on what we knew so far. We had no suspicion of foul play and our main concern at the moment was a chance of the spire falling or even the bells collapsing off their frames.
It should be known that our Tower (T-1) truck was financed with a generous gift from St. Lawrence. St. Lawrence has always been a huge supporter of Canton Fire & Rescue with ties between the two found all through the University and Canton communities. More Laurentians helped fight the fire, other than myself: Rob Larrabee ’97, Tim Gavin ’03, Jessica Thompson ’09 and Tyler Baldino ’14, as well as many firefighters and EMTs with spouses who work at St. Lawrence.
It was my pleasure to be of service, not only to my community but also to my university. It was an experience apart from all others. In the moment I was definitely aware of the fact that I was saving one of our most precious icons. While there may have been quite a bit of damage to the bell tower, it is already apparent that we can recover from this. I like to think back to what I read on a stained-glass window in the chapel that reads: “We have lit a candle in the wilderness that will never be extinguished.” As much as the irony pains me, it’s true: Nothing can break down the spirit of this campus.