Fire Chief Bill Dunn received an emergency call a little after 4 a.m. on Thursday. A building in Carl Junction, Mo., was burning. He raced to the scene, not knowing which building it was.
“When I saw it, I thought to myself, 'Oh my Lord, not again,’” Dunn said. “'Not again.'”
The steeple of Carl Junction United Methodist Church -- Dunn’s church -- had been struck by lightning about 3 a.m. By the time Dunn and his crew had arrived, “the blaze was sky high.”
The night had seen an intense storm, with reports of hundreds of lightning strikes bearing down on the county, he said.
Dunn promptly called Pastor Bill Kenagy, who arrived about 5 a.m. to see the church enveloped in flames. By 7 a.m., the 30,000-square-foot church, with its front-facing paneled windows and giant wooden cross hanging over the altar, was pronounced unsalvageable.
“It was heart-wrenching to see the faces of the people of my church,” Kenagy said. “As though they were thinking, ‘Not again.’”
This is the second time the Carl Junction United Methodist Church has been destroyed. On May 4, 2003, a tornado wrecked the church as it tore through Missouri, ripping off the roof and destroying the interior.
On that day -- a Sunday -- at least 15 tornadoes roared through Kansas and Missouri, killing 25 people and damaging more than 3,000 homes and businesses, according to the National Weather Service.
All 25 people who were sheltering inside the church were unharmed. The altar was untouched as well, the candles were still upright, and the church's historic Bible was still at the base, left open to the same passage used in the service that morning, said congregation member Pat Wilson.
The altar and the Bible didn't make it through the fire.
“It’s all burned to ashes,” Wilson said. “It’s devastating.”
The congregation was displaced for nearly two years after the tornado, meeting at various locations while they rebuilt their church -- a funeral home, a local Baptist church, in trailers on the church's property.
“We all had one purpose in mind and one goal,” Wilson said. “That was to rebuild, to make the church stronger and better than it was before.”
The church reopened in 2004, with a larger sanctuary and dedicated classrooms. Now, a decade later, the congregation must raise yet another church.
Kenagy, who wasn’t with the congregation during the tornado, said the building is insured and a new church will be built. The congregation, which had about 200 members when the tornado hit, now counts between 75 and 100 members.
Dunn and Wilson say the church’s destruction doesn’t make them question their faith.
“We know that the people are the church, not the building,” Wilson said.
Dunn said the aftermath of the tornado was worse, because the entire city of Carl Junction, population 7,410, had been severely damaged.
This time, the church can lean on the rest of the community. The support has come quickly, as other religious organizations in Carl Junction pulled together to plan a prayer vigil for the congregation the day of the fire.
“It’s going to be a start from scratch,” Wilson said. “But we can do it. We will do it.”
In the meantime, services will continue. The first will be Sunday in the auditorium of the high school.
For Dunn, the only thing to do is to “take a step back and say, ‘Well, here we go again.’”Follow @msrikris for the latest national news.