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Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006

Still standing, for now

Truck accident sparks fire at Calvary Chapel, knocks building off foundation

TOWNSHEND—You might call the Calvary Chapel in West Townshend the church too tough to die.

How else would you explain why the building is still standing after a runaway moving van careened down Windham Hill Road last Monday, flew across Route 30 and slammed into the ground between the chapel and the West Townshend Community Post Office and art gallery building?

Ron Millette, the nondenominational Christian church’s pastor and also a logger, called the forces that rocked the original 193-year-old structure and all its additions “shock waves.”

No one was hurt in the Nov. 22 crash, but the impact of the United Van Lines trailer truck cracked a 110-year-old wood stove, in place on the main floor for about 100 years, and started a fire beneath the main floor.

The fire was discovered and extinguished before it caused extensive damage.

But then church members discovered that the shock waves from the crash blew in a section of the stone apron beneath the timber structure, shifting the chapel’s floor joists, beams and girders and tilting the building about six inches westward, once again casting doubt on the building’s future.

David LeBlanc, who serves with Millette at the church and owns a carpet cleaning business in Newfane, said the shock waves “had a cascading effect. Everything went northwest toward Jamaica.”

Firefighter averts disaster

The moving van, which was carrying the belongings of four families, reportedly was traveling about 45 mph when its brakes locked on Windham Hill Road, about a mile before the stretch of steep road approaching Route 30.

The vehicle finally came to a stop after overturning in the chapel parking lot, closer to the post office, but only a few feet shy of the chapel.

Household goods gushed out on impact, as did about 250 gallons of hazardous diesel from the two recently-filled fuel tanks.

Townshend Fire Chief Doug Winot said he was working at the accident site from about noon on last Monday, monitoring the cleanup of the fuel.

Winot had responded to the original call reporting the accident with two Townshend volunteer firefighters, Michele Brooks and Adam Bozetarnik. Jamaica had also responded.

Winot was standing in front of the post office when he was notified by a state trooper that something was burning in the church.

 When the cleanup was well on its way, Winot said he sent firefighters home. He’d also dispatched his volunteers to get some lunch, and Brooks and Bozetarnik drove over to Harmonyville to get sandwiches.

So, at that point the only firefighter on the scene, Winot ran to his truck and drove it next to the church.

“I went around to the back and went in the basement crawl space,” Winot reported, “and I could see sparks and flames.”

He said he went right back up and sounded the first of two more alarms, bringing engines and ladders from about nine local departments, including his two volunteers on their lunch quest.

In the meantime, he said the two state troopers began pulling hoses off his truck.

“We brought them to the back of the building and went back into the crawl space to knock down the fire from there,” he explained.

He then came out and brought in another hose through the front of the church and knocked a hole in the floor to get at the flames from there.

It took only about 20 minutes to get the fire under control once everyone had responded, Winot said. Firefighters cut holes in the floor with chainsaws, moved the iron stove about a foot or so and got water to the hot spots from several places,

“It hadn’t spread very far and we caught it in time,” Winot said. “It could have been a disaster one way or the other.”

Agreeing was Kelly Millette, who runs the West Townshend Post Office and is Pastor Millette’s wife.

She said how surprised everyone was that the post office building, which had suffered serious fire damage in the past, went unscathed. Even the large blown-glass pieces on exhibit in the building were untouched by the crash.

The two United Van Lines employees reportedly suffered only minor injuries.

Townshend volunteer firefighter Michele Brooks remembers getting to the scene and thinking, “What a mess. It looked like a tornado hit. Four people’s personal belongings — Christmas decorations, bedding, tools everywhere. The two drivers were all shook up.”

She reported that former pastor David Onyon and family, as well as other members of the congregation, brought food and drink to the firefighters.

“I’d seen my brother loading wood in the furnace just a few hours earlier,” said Millette, speaking of his brother, Pete Millette, the assistant pastor.

He also noted how strange the floor looked when first came on the scene.  “It was all ruffled,” he said, adding “and part of a front pew just sort of exploded.”

But it looks like the chapel might be saved after all.

Structural engineers are expected on the scene this week, and representatives from the church’s insurers have done inspections, Millette said.

Carl Walters, vice-president of marketing and communication at United Van Lines home office in St. Louis, said on the telephone he had heard some reports of the accident and fire but would not be prepared to comment until he was in his office and could look at all the documents.

Congregation displaced

According to the church’s website, www.calvarychapelwrv.org, as a result of the accident, church programs will not take place in the damaged sanctuary “for the foreseeable future.”

The Tuesday mid-day women’s Bible study will meet at the post office next door, the same location as the Wednesday evening service. The men’s Bible study on Tuesday evening will meet at Dave LeBlanc’s home.

According to the website, the church “will be utilizing the Seventh Day Adventist church facility a little further west on Route 30 in West Townshend.”

For more information, contact Millette at 802-874-7015.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #78 (Wednesday, December 1, 2010).

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