Episcopal Student Center torched to train firefighters

The 70-year-old Canterbury House of St. Andrew’s Episcopal church in Montevallo made its final contribution to the community Jan. 16. Firefighters from the Montevallo and Briarfield fire departments set the student center ablaze to make way for a new building on the property and used the opportunity as a training drill.

The pastor of St. Andrew’s, Rev. John Wesley, said that the house, which is adjacent to the church, had served as a residency and place of ministry for university students for three decades. The house had space for four students to live, but the new student center will have six bedrooms, he said.

“We’re expecting the new one to be completed by May,” said Wesley.

When the church started talking about building a new student center, planning committee members tossed around the idea of burning the current one as a firefighting drill, said parishioner Sally Smith.

“Our builder knew the fire marshall, Brandon Broadhead, and the two of them worked out the liability issues to make this happen,” she said.

Broadhead was on the scene the day of the blaze along with nearly 40 other firefighters. He explained what would happen throughout the day, which started at 9 a.m.

“We’re going to start smaller fires inside and send crews in to see it grow, then put it out until the structure is unsafe. Then we will let it burn to the ground,” said Broadhead.

He said that the fire would reach over 1500 degrees and would last most of the day. Around 1 p.m. the firefighters started the final burn by setting an upper room and the middle of the bottom floor on fire. “We want it to burn in the middle and collapse into the basement,” said Broadhead.

Montevallo’s fire chief Bill Reed estimated that the firefighters created at least 20 burns in five separate scenarios as part of the training.

“This is a once-a-year kind of opportunity for our firefighters,” he said. “This is the first time that at least six of our firefighters have seen live fire.”

Neighbors, members of St. Andrew’s, university students and people from the community came by throughout the day to observe the drills and the fire’s progress.

Montevallo resident Cathy Connor got to watch her 19-year-old son Chad fight the flames.

“He’s been a volunteer firefighter for two years and I’m so proud that he’s so civic-minded and wants to help people,” she said.

For one family of on-lookers, the scene was an emotional one. Paula Guthrie-Lowry, her twin sister Pam and their mother Carleen watched the blaze from across the street in Carleen Guthrie’s current house. The Canterbury house was their old home, said Paula. The Guthrie family lived in the house for almost 14 years until moving across the street in 1972.

Carleen Guthrie said, “It’s heartbreaking to watch because of the memories but I’m sure something beautiful will be in its place.”

Members of the Guthrie family were allowed to go back into the building before it was burned to retrieve anything of sentimental value that was still there, like an old ironing board and even a section of a closet wall where Paula Guthrie-Lowry had written “I love Mommy and Daddy” as a child, said Carleen Guthrie.

Paula Guthrie-Lowry said that the burning of their old home has come full-circle.

“Ironically, my father was one of the first firefighters in Montevallo,” she said. “When he was assistant fire chief, current fire chief Bill Reed was just starting out as a firefighter,” she said. “Daddy would be very pleased that our old home is being used to train other firefighters.”