Ohio Valley Top 10: No. 10 — Fire Destroys Former Sacred Heart Church, Home of Augusta Levy Learning Center
WHEELING — The former Sacred Heart Church in North Wheeling likely is a total loss, as fire ripped through the structure shortly after 9 a.m. Saturday.
The structure, located at 99 Main St., currently houses the Augusta Levy Learning Center and at least one other business, residents who live nearby said. The building was empty when the fire started.
Heavy smoke blanketed much of North Wheeling for about an hour, as Wheeling firefighters worked to contain the blaze. The structure’s roof is nearly gone, with only charred beams remaining, and many of the stained-glass windows destroyed.
Wheeling Assistant Fire Chief Tony Campbell said it appears the fire began in the church’s belltower, where the heating and air conditioning system prevented easy access.
“When we got here, there was heavy smoke coming out of the belltower,” he said. “We made access to the belltower. All the fire was behind the wall where the HVAC system is, so it was going right across the roof. By the time we were able to get in, we had heavy fire all the way across the roof. We tried to get it as quick as we could, but had to call them back once we saw how much there was.”
Campbell did not say he immediately suspected the HVAC system was the cause of the fire, but that it likely aided in its spread.
“The way the church is designed, it has such a high attic and there’s so much space there. (The fire) is just going to go wherever there’s air, and it ran straight across.”
Campbell added that one firefighter was injured during the firefighting efforts as a result of a ladder accident, but he was taken to the hospital and was not believed to be seriously injured.
Gerald Cunningham, who lives on Kenney Street in North Wheeling, said he was in the middle of his second cup of coffee this morning when he became aware something was wrong.
“I was looking toward the river watching the trees blow in the breeze and I saw what I thought was pollen blowing in the air. Then I noticed that it looked grayish instead of yellow and basically then I started seeing it a little bit heavier,” Cunningham said. “I came running down the street, and I figured that much smoke has to be coming from a large building, the old Sacred Heart Church has to be it.
“By the time I got down here the first vehicle from the fire department had responded and pulled beyond the structure, and then they brought the second truck in. Before the second truck even dropped hose, you could see the flames and the fire coming out the windows on the upper mezzanine area, which used to be a gymnasium back when the church was open. Within probably 10 minutes the flames were on the exterior of the building, had already burned through and popped a couple of the old stained glass windows that had remained.”
Cunningham said firefighters entered the structure but quickly withdrew due to concerns the building’s structure could fail due to the flames and heat. At that point, firefighters on ladder trucks began attacking the flames from above.”
Haley Rush, outreach coordinator with the Augusta Levy Learning Center, said the day was an extremely emotional one for all involved.
“It’s devastating. I didn’t even know what to think when they first told me,” she said. “We got a lot of our stuff out – not all of it – but we’re thankful to have that. We know the community’s really going to step up and help us, but we’re going to have to figure out a plan.”
Rush added that the Learning Center had always had a close relationship with the Wheeling Fire Department, as getting students acquainted with first responders was an important part of their education.
The Augusta Levy Learning Center instructed 20 students and employed 32 staff members. At the time of the fire, classes were on a two week summer vacation, which was to resume Monday.
Executive Director Angie Wood said that among the materials rescued from the fire – and the foot and a half of water – were the students’ binders, which would allow them to continue instructing them at home until a more permanent solution could be devised.
“We’re broken-hearted. This is our home, where we serve our kids,” she said. “We were able to get our kids program binders, so we can continue to give them services. We were also able to get their medical files, but that was about what we were able to get. … Wheeling has been amazing. We’ve gotten tons of the support from the community.”
“We were supposed to come back from our break on Monday, so Monday is going to be about making a game plan, and from there, maybe do home therapy, maybe find a place in the community.
The two-alarm fire saw nearly every engine in Wheeling respond to the site, with one crew left behind to continue monitoring the rest of the city. Additionally, a ladder crew from Cumberland Trail Fire Department came on hand to assist.
W.Va. 2 remained closed through North Wheeling, from the 600 block to the traffic light. Wheeling Police Public Information Officer Philip Stahl said the road was expected to be closed until mid-afternoon at the earliest, which was unfortunate, as the Beast of the East tournament was going on, making the road heavily traveled.
The former church, dedicated on Aug. 28, 1904, served as the heart of the North Wheeling neighborhood. Along with housing the learning center, it also previously served as a community center when the new Hope VI housing was built next door.