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April 10, 1998     Cape Gazette
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April 10, 1998

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14 - CAPE GAZETTE, Friday, April 10 April 16, 1998 Unusually high rainfall blamed for Baptist Church wing collapse By Dennis Forney Blame it on the rain. Young members of the First Baptist Church of Lewes played basketball in their gymnasium un- til 10 p.m. on Thursday, April 2. The next morning's light, how- ever, revealed an unbelievable scene. Overnight the walls and roof of the church wing housing the gymnasium and church offices caved into the downstairs space, destroying the entire wing and everything in it. The collapse also broke the charged, 4-inch water line feeding a sprinkler system for the gymnasium and office wing. As a result, a torrent of water flowed into the gymnasium, fill- ing it to a depth of more than 10 feet, and into the adjacent main church building and sanctuary, causing extensive damage. An engineering firm hired to in- spect the collapse wrote a letter this week to Sussex County's Chief Building Inspector, Van Milligan. "They basically said that due to the ground being satu- rated with rain, the concrete footer on which the building was con- structed shifted dramatically and the building collapsed as a result. People are used to minor shifting and settling of buildings, which create hairline cracks in their homes and elsewhere. This was just a lot more dramatic," said Milligan. "If we hadn't had the rain we've had this winter I think that church wing would still be there." Throughout Sussex County and the region, rainfall for this year is running almost double its normal amount. "We're just really thank- ful that no one got hurt," said Bruce Plummer, chairman of the deacons for the church. "We use that portion of the building almost every day. Teenagers, senior citizen groups, lots of people use it. The gymna- sium is on the bottom level and there are three offices on the top level. We were able to salvage a few pictures and a few of the pas- tor's things but everything else was pretty much destroyed. We're just lucky that the building collapsed when it did. The pas- tor's office was in that section as well as an office for the youth pas- tor and the general church office." Plummer said it appears that the building collapsed at around 4 a.m. on April 3 when no one was in the building. 'What's the time that neighboring witnesses report- ed hearing a loud boom. At 6 a.m., when the pastor got up the building was down." Plummer noted that the parson- age for the church is adjacent to, but not connected to, the main church building and the collapsed wing. He noted that Pastor Mike Hopkins lost water to his house but there was no damage to the parsonage. "We also received good news today [April 7] that the main part of the church is still structurally sound. Two engineers doing an inspection gave us the go-ahead to begin cleaning up inside that part of the church and hopefully we can resume our services there in two to three weeks," said Plum- mer. Don Martin, chairman of the church board of trustees, said the church has experienced some wa- ter problems in the wing over the years and had installed a sump pump system to control the situa- tion. "The water table's been higher this year than I've ever seen it," said Martin. "It's a very deep room - about 12 feet below ground level - and it's pure sand under the floor." By Thursday of this week, wa- ter had been restored to the par- sonage and electricity was back on in the main building and sanc- tuary of the church. The main church building, built in the early- to mid-1950s when the church first came to Lewes, includes Sun- day School rooms on the first lev- el - part below ground level and part above. The main church sanc- tuary and more Sunday School rooms are on the second floor. "The ground floor of the main building had about a foot of water in it on Friday morning," said Plummer. "The carpet, paneling and doors were ruined so we've started that cleanup. The insur- ance adjuster has been to the site and we're waiting for that report." Plummer and Martin said the church is still waiting on the engi- neers' official report on what went wrong. "We don't want to specu- late on the cause until we hear what the engineers say," said Plummer. "I know there have been all kinds of rumors flying around town but we don't really know yet for sure. Of course the water table is very high due to the wet winter we've had and I do know that when I arrived on Fri- day morning at 6:45 a.m. there was water running from some of the pipes and the gymnasium was already completely flooded. Lewes Fire Chief Wally Evans told me he believed they pumped about 300,000 gallons of water from the basement." (Martin not- ed that the pumping had taken the water level down to about a foot but by late this week the level had risen another foot from the water table.) Plummet noted that the wing that collapsed was used as a school many years ago and that a sprinkler system was installed as part of the regulations for that use. He said the main water line that- served the sprinkler system was broken and pouring a steady stream of water into the remains of the building when he arrived. Lewes Board of Public Works General Manager Ruth Ann Ritter said the church would have to be charged for the water if it went through the meter but that no sew- er charges based on the water would be levied. "That water nev- er went into our sewer system," said Ritter. The basement of the collapsed masonry structure included the gymnasium, which Plummer said was built into the ground at least 12 feet down with a ceiling 18 feet above the floor. He also noted that the church had just last week completed a total remodeling of the church offices after several weeks of labor. "And a new kitchen facility in the main struc- ture that opened into a fellowship hall area also collapsed with the wing of the building." He said the collapsed wing was constructed about 20 years ago by a local licensed contractor. The masonry construction was flat- roofed with a rubberized roofing material. "There were minor leaks here and there but nothing that would cause what happened," said Plummer. He also said that a structural engineer inspected the building a year ago. "We did some waterproofing that was sug- gested but as far as we know everything else was OK." The 150-200 member congrega- tion has not missed a single ser- vice despite the building collapse. "This is revival week for us and we've had services scheduled every night through Thursday. We haven't missed a one. We met last Sunday at the Biden Environ- mental Center in Cape Henlopen State Park. The park people have been very good to us. We set up Angle Moon photo Volunteers carry a pump-out hose toward the collapsed gymnasium and church office wing of First Baptist Church of Lewes. chairs for 150 for that service and that wasn't enough. There were rooms there, too, for Sunday School and nursery. We've held our revival services in the Officers Club at Cape Henlopen and on Easter Sunday we'll be in the Vir- den Center of the University of Delaware's College of Marine Studies. They have space there for our Sunday School and nurs- ery as well. People have really been great. We've gotten e-mail from around the world - including Germany and Japan -where we have missionaries and phone calls and mail from all over this coun- try as well. It's been good for PR [public relations] anyway." Plummer said the men of the church have been getting together daily to begin the rebuilding process. Building inspector Milli- gan noted that had the building been built by today's construction standards the scene might have been different. '`There's more re- inforcing required in footers and block walls now than there was 20 years ago," said Milligan. "That gives buildings more flex and al- lows them to withstand more shifting than older construction would. And I'm sure this building was built to the standards of the time. I've never seen a situation like this before in Sussex Coun- ty." Is Your i!! BLUE'00ATER' LTD. II Featuring A Furl Line Of Chemical Systems 645-8119 by and l 671 Hwy. One, Lewes "" -'" F ...... " ,..,,, (over the Nassau Bridge)