Homer, Georgia
SPECIAL FEATURE
January 6, 1999


New Year's Eve blaze levels Banks County church

Arson kills firefighter

New Salem Church destroyed in tragic fire

Firemen hear scream to 'get out' as building falls

BY ANGELA GARY AND SHERRY LEWIS

A bouquet of red flowers lay amid charred ruins of New Salem United Methodist Church Friday morning marking the spot where a Banks County firefighter was killed in a New Year's Eve blaze. Authorities say the fire was started by arsonists who will now face murder charges when they are caught. A reward has been offered for the arrest and conviction of the arsonists (see other story inside).

Capt. Loy Williams, 27, Commerce, died at the Hwy. 59 church when the roof of the structure fell on him as he fought the flames. Four other volunteer firefighters, Chuck Bray, Tim Smallwood, Perry Dalton, who is Banks County's assistant fire chief, and Chuck Bakunas, received minor injuries. Three were treated and released from Athens Regional Medical Center, while one was treated at the scene.

AT THE SCENE

Smallwood and Bakunas were with Williams inside the burning New Salem United Methodist Church when the ceiling started to collapse. Smallwood heard someone screaming "Get Out! Get Out!"

"I looked at Loy and then I started screaming for my life," said Smallwood who received a concussion and cuts and bruises to the right side of his body. "The fire was all the way around me and it was too hot to even think."

Smallwood was knocked about five feet from the doorway of the church but those screams helped to save his life. Firefighter Dana Maddox and Fire Chief Dean Jackman heard those screams and started pulling boards from the ceiling off of Smallwood.

Deputy Chief Perry Dalton was the person yelling at the firefighters to get out.

"I tried to tell them to get out," he said. "I felt a rush of air, a pop and looked over my shoulder and the ceiling was coming down. I made it to the door and the force pushed me 20 feet out the door face down."

Chuck Bray was also inside the church trying to stop the blazes.

"I heard a pop and it was all over me and I was trapped," said Bray who was burned on his arm and head. "I could see a little hole and I kept digging until I could push parts of the ceiling off of me and walk out."

Christine Bray, Chuck's wife, stood outside and watched wondering if she would ever see her husband alive again. She heard the call on the radio stating that four guys were missing.

"I knew that he was one of those because he always works the nozzle inside," she said. "Then, I heard my little girl say (Kaley, 4), 'if Daddy's in there, he's on fire.' I just wanted to die. I could not imagine raising two kids without a Daddy."

Battalion Chief Jeff Taylor worked with Williams in the Nails Creek District for almost one and a half years.

"He was a dedicated fireman," he said. "He would come by the station every week and if anything needed to be done he would do it."

Fire Chief Dean Jackman said: "My guys gave all they could give. Loy Williams gave the ultimate and I think the public needs to realize what our volunteers do give. This is an example of what one did give-his life."

Deputy Chief Jim Norman said the community and the fire department has suffered a loss.

"The community has lost part of their family-the church," he said. "People need to realize that we have lost a part of our family too-a firefighter. We firefighters are all family and we are grieving over our loss."

Banks County Board of Commission Chairman James Dumas worked around the clock at the fire scene and played a part in telling the Williams' family.

"Telling the family was the hardest thing I have even had to do in my two years on the job," he said. "You've got a person who gets paid nothing to protect property and he loses his life."

John Creasy, one of the Banks County volunteer firemen at New Salem Thursday night, said Williams loved fire fighting.

"It was a big part of his life," he said. "His brother was also here at the church fighting the same fire. He was somebody who cared a lot. There wasn't anything he wouldn't do. It meant a lot to him to go out and help his neighbors...Everybody in the department is pretty shaken now."

Williams had volunteered with the Banks County Fire Department for more than a year, but he was also a volunteer with Bold Springs Fire Department in Franklin County where he had been for a number of years. He was brick mason and had a 9-year-old daughter.


Fireman 'answers last call'

'If he could see how you are honoring his death, there would be a big smile on his face.'


Sunday rites for Loy Williams
marks a weekend of sadness

BY SHERRY LEWIS

A fire truck draped in black slowly made its way along Hwy. 23 to an Alto church Sunday afternoon bearing the body of volunteer fireman Loy Williams on his "last call." The fire truck was followed by dozens of others from departments all over North Georgia and hundreds of people, many of them firefighters, gathered in and around Alto Congregational Holiness Church to pay their respects to Williams, who died Thursday night fighting a fire that destroyed New Salem United Methodist Church near Commerce.

"If he could see how you are honoring his death, there would be a big smile on his face," said the Rev. Leon Brown during the service. "He would know that he was a man that was loved and cared about."

Williams was given a "fireman's funeral" as firemen waited outside the church and along the road for the procession that included over 100 fire trucks from all over the metro Atlanta area and North Georgia. Toward the end of the procession, the fire trucks passed under an arch formed by the high ladders of two fire trucks placed on either side of the highway.

At the church, Williams' flag-draped coffin was slowly carried up the steps and into the church as hundreds of firefighters saluted. Once the coffin and the family were escorted inside, firemen marched one by one down the aisles. When all the seats were taken, firefighters lined the two walls in the church while many others had to remain outside in the frigid wind and near-freezing temperatures.

The Rev. Brown spoke of how Williams truly loved firefighting. Williams said that when he had to die, he wanted to die doing one of the things he loved best, Brown said, reading from notes prepared by Williams' mother, Gertrude.

"He talked about firefighting all the time," Brown read. "Loy told his brother (Alvin) that when it was his time to go, he wanted to die fighting a fire."

Williams also talked many times about his concern for the safety of others, Brown said.

"He always wanted to be sure everyone was out before he left the burning building and that is what happened the night that he died," Brown recalled.

Brown talked about how plans, dreams and good intentions can vanish in a moment. Reading from the Book of James, Brown told the overflow congregation that "life is like a vapor that appeareth for a little time and then it vanishes away."

"I'm sure if you talk with Johanna (Williams' wife), she will tell you that they had plans, dreams and intentions of what to do with their lives," he said. "On Thursday, these were all shattered to pieces by this tragedy. I'm sure he never thought that he would die at 27. I'm sure he never knew that Thursday was going to be his last day."

The Rev. Russell Cash, a friend of Williams, talked about the "merry heart" that he said was always evident in Loy.

"Proverbs 17:22 says a merry heart does good like medicine," he said. "To me, that scripture says it all. Loy may have been small in stature, but he had a big heart, a loving heart. Through his work, he brought healing and made many people feel good."

Once the service had ended, firefighters and friends lined a long path from the church to the cemetery. A bagpiper led the procession with "Amazing Grace" as Williams' body was taken to his final resting place.

At that time, Williams received his "last call" from Banks County 911 operator Pam Ferguson over the radio, using his call number , 402, and fire signal codes for "out of service" and "ending a tour of duty."

"Loy Williams has answered his last call, home to The Father, a great loss to us all," she said. "All units be advised: # 402 is 10-7 and 10-42 forever more."


Large task force formed to probe fire; reward offered for info

BY SHERRY LEWIS AND ANGELA GARY

There are few leads in the New Year's Eve arson of New Salem United Methodist Church, but federal, state and local agencies have formed a large task force in an effort to bring the perpetrators to justice. One of the key aspects of the investigation may be any information generated by a $10,000 state reward fund which has already been supplemented by an additional $5,000 from a local businessman.

"We have assembled the largest task force of intelligence-gathering agencies that has ever been assembled in Banks County," said Sheriff Charles Chapman. "We are working slowly and thoroughly turning over every leaf. We have exhausted many man hours and will continue to work doing all that is possible to see that this is resolved and the people responsible are brought to justice."

The case was ruled arson after a canine unit found samples at the site.

Investigators from the United States Treasury Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the State Fire Marshall's Office and the Banks County Sheriff's Office are all working on the case.

The fire not only destroyed the historic church but also took the life of 27-year-old Loy Williams, who worked as a volunteer firefighter in Banks County and Franklin County.

Chapman said this "heinous" act is a sign of just how things are changing in Banks County.

"Not long ago, this was the kind of thing that we only heard about, and now we are experiencing it in our neighborhood," said Chapman.

 

OXENDINE VISITS SITE

One of the first state officials at the site Friday morning was state insurance commissioner John Oxendine. As he stood near the remains of the church Friday morning, he angrily decried the loss of a firefighter's life.

"A volunteer gave his life fighting this fire," he said. "It's a difficult time for the entire community...I am angry. As a safety commissioner, I'm the figurehead for all firefighters. It's like losing a family member. Firefighters have a special place in my heart...It's difficult. It touches everybody."

Oxendine announced that arson had officially been ruled as the cause of the fire and offered a $10,000 reward to anyone offering information that leads to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the crime. He asked anyone with information about the fire to call his office at 1-800-282-5804.

"We're convinced it's definitely arson," he said. "We're going to get to the bottom of this. To do this to a church...is even more heinous."

Oxendine quickly pointed out that the fire is not only arson, but is also murder.

Officials are looking into the possibility that those who set the New Salem blaze may also be responsible for a similar arson fire later Thursday night in Oconee County that hit, but did not destroy, another historic Methodist church. Oconee County Sheriff Scott Berry was at the Banks County church Friday morning to discuss the two fires with officials.

Firefighters were first called to the scene at 9:23 p.m. Thursday night. Volunteers were called in from fire departments in Banks, Jackson and Franklin counties. Numerous other volunteers offered assistance throughout the night and Friday. Chapman, along with board of commission chairman James Dumas, were also at the site throughout the day and fielded questions from media representatives and church members.


Amid sadness, congregation vows to rebuild

'A man's life was broken and spilled out in that fire'

BY SHERRY LEWIS

It was an emotional weekend for members of New Salem United Methodist Church as they attempted to absorb both the loss of their church to an arsonist and the death of a local firefighter who tried to save it. But members of the 140-year-old congregation vow they will not let the loss of a building be the end of their church.

"I keep thinking I am going to wake up, but it is becoming more real to me every day," said church member Allen Purcell Sunday morning. "If you can't see that the Devil is in this, you are blind. We were growing so much, but we will make it even bigger and even better."

Minister Luis Ortiz also echoed that message in a sermon to the congregation Sunday.

"This morning, we come together and our spirits are still strong even amongst the rubble and ashes," Ortiz said. "We are the church. The body of Christ is not a building. Buildings come and go, but we are still together."

 

NEW YEAR'S SADNESS

But as dawn broke Friday, New Year's Day, thoughts of the future were difficult as Ortiz and many members of the congregation gathered at the Hwy. 59 Banks County hillside of what had been their sanctuary - now just a charred rubble with only a partial wall in the back still standing and surrounded by yellow police "crime scene" ribbon. Whether it was a New Year's Eve "prank" or a sinister act with other overtones, the fire had clearly burned the hearts of those who attended New Salem.

"I can't put it into words," Ortiz said through tears when asked how he felt when he first saw the church. "It's a sad morning. It's depressing to think that someone gets their kicks out of starting a fire...The tears are for the young man who lost his life. He's a hero in our eyes. That young man had a little girl...It's hard."

While Ortiz said that as a minister he can forgive those who destroyed the church, for the family of 27-year-old Loy Williams, who died in the blaze, it will be much harder.

"I can forgive them in my position, spiritually as a pastor, but I know it will be very hard for the family."

 

REMEMBERING THE SACRIFICE

Emotions continued to run deep Sunday morning as the congregation gathered for services in the church's fellowship hall, only a few yards from the blackened rubble of their former sanctuary. The church will receive only $87,000 in insurance money, although it is expected to cost more than $400,000 to rebuild.

Mary Francis Pruitt was one of the more than 100 who came to the service. Tears streamed down her face when she tried to talk about losing the church that had been a part of her life for 70 years.

But while members of the congregation continued to feel the loss of their church, Ortiz emphasized that the true concern of the congregation was for the family of Williams.

"As I have said so many times, we can replace that building, but Loy's life is something that can never be replaced," said a still shaken Ortiz. "We can never get back that life no matter what we do. This is the most perfect example of Jesus Christ in a person's life.

"Loy gave his life for good. He did not know you, me or others at New Salem, but he knew it was a house of God. It was the house of the same God that he worshiped and he came and he gave the ultimate sacrifice."

Ortiz said that people who give the greatest sacrifice usually go unnoticed.

"The true heroes are the ones that no one looks at and are usually the people in the community who do it for nothing," he said. "The firefighters are the true heroes. Some people get paid and do a job and others do it because they love it. Loy gave 100 percent to it and it took his life."

Ortiz pleaded with members that they not let the death of Williams go in vain.

"A man lost his life trying to save this church," he said. "Let's not worry about the light fixtures, the music or the pews we sit in. Each time we walk into a new building let us remember that the cost for the building was a man's life."

The congregation took part in a communion service, which Ortiz said should take on a new meaning for members of New Salem.

"Each time we break the bread and drink from this cup, we should think of the body and the blood of Jesus Christ, but now we should also think of the body and blood shed by Loy," the pastor said. "Communion should never be the same for us again. A man's life was broken and spilled out in that fire."

David Dyer, stepfather of William's wife, Johanna, attended the service and was the first to take communion. He spoke briefly to church members, thanking them for all they had done for the family. During the service, an offering was taken for the Williams family and Ortiz asked the congregation to continue to remember them in prayers.

The minister said that the last few days have been the hardest he had ever experienced during his years in the ministry.

"We have definitely been removed from our comfort zone this week," he said. "I have had to draw upon the strength of the Lord because my strength in totally exhausted."


Georgia church fires under investigation by state officials

Commissioner Oxendine's office and other local, state and federal agencies are investigating the following church fires:

1. Amazing Grace Baptist Church in Murray County, fire occurred Dec. 23, ruled suspicious, investigation continuing;

2. Mountain View Baptist Church in Murray County, fire occurred Dec. 24, ruled arson, investigation continuing;

3. Sardis Full Gospel Church in Walton County, Dec. 25, cause undetermined, investigation continuing;

4. New Salem United Methodist Church in Banks County, Dec. 31, ruled arson, firefighter Kennon Loy Williams killed, investigation continuing; and

5. Johnson United Methodist Church in Oconee County, Jan. 1, 1999, ruled arson, investigation continuing.

In addition, an abandoned house fire that occurred in Jackson County on Dec. 31 also has been ruled arson.


BCN publishes first-ever 'extra'

The Banks County News published an "Extra Edition" Friday afternoon about the arson fire that destroyed New Salem United Methodist Church and killed a firefighter.

It was the first time in its 30-year history that The Banks County News published an extra. The four-page issue included stories and pictures on the fire and Loy Williams, the volunteer firefighter killed in the arson.

"The reason we decided to do this was not only because a local church burned, but also because a firefighter was killed," said publisher Herman Buffington. "We didn't want our readers to have to wait a week for local, in-depth coverage of this tragedy."

Some 1,300 issues of the special section were distributed across Banks County Friday night, less than 24 hours after the fire. Many newsstands had sold out of the issue by Saturday.

"Sometimes weekly newspapers are at a disadvantage when news breaks at the end of the week," Buffington said. "But we have a commitment to get accurate news out as soon as possible on major events in the communities we cover and thanks to our employees and B-J-C Medical Center's sponsoring of this Extra, we got the word out."

Editor Angela Gary first got a call about the fire at 9:30 a.m. Friday from a dispatcher at the Banks County 911 office. She immediately went to the scene and stayed until around noon when co-owner Mike Buffington also came to the church and made plans for the special extra edition. Photos taken at the church were developed and taken to the Jefferson headquarters of the company to be scanned into the computer system.

Stories written by Miss Gary and news editor Sherry Lewis were used in the four-page section, along with photographs.

Garnett Smith and Maurice Sanford printed the paper Friday afternoon, with Smith and Miss Gary delivering papers across Banks County Friday night.

"It was a major effort by these folks to come in on short notice and quickly publish this special issue," said Buffington. "But that is minor compared to the all-night efforts of local firefighters and to the ultimate sacrifice of Loy Williams."


'Fighting Fires With Facts'

Suggested arson prevention tips for Georgia churches and places of worship

John W. Oxendine

Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner

·Participate in a neighborhood watch program and educate the congregation concerning lighting arrangements in and around the house of worship.

·Encourage neighbors to make note of strangers spending time in the neighborhood, both pedestrian and vehicle traffic. Record tag numbers of suspicious vehicles and inform the proper authorities. Remember as many specific details as possible about suspicious persons, because a good physical description may help fire officials and police identify suspects. Educate neighbors on recognizing unusual activities.

·Involve the church insurance provider.

·Check for proper identification from utility and service technicians seeking to gain access to the church facility. Legitimate technicians will readily provide identification.

·Signs and bulletins should not advertise when the facility will not be in use.

·Keep church leaders informed of problems. Be aware of individuals who may be disgruntled or likely to cause damage to church property through arson or vandalism.

·Be aware that vandalism and burglary may precede arson.

·Keep open lines of communication with fire and law enforcement officials regarding the arson problem facing churches. Request an arson risk assessment from your local fire marshal or police official. They could make specific recommendations to reduce the risk of arson.

Securing the Building

·Illuminate the exterior and all entrances. Consider installing motion-activated lighting near doors and windows.

·Church grounds and parking areas should have adequate security lighting.

·Trim shrubbery and trees so criminals do not have easy access to the building. In addition, this will allow the grounds to be easily observed by passing patrols.

·Consider fencing areas that are not easily visible to patrols or neighbors.

·Ladders, external stairways and fire escapes allowing access to roof areas should be secured.

·Churches with basement entries should be secured by locking ground level doors that are operable from within the building.

·Installation of a combination burglar and fire alarm should be considered.

·Keep a current list of all individuals who have access to church keys and change the locks periodically.

·Opening doors and windows should have appropriate locks. Emergency exit doors must be operable from inside the building. Consider decorative or wrought iron protection for windows. NOTE: Coordination with local fire departments is important when using security bars.

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