On Tuesday, April 19, Jon Ashley’s Facebook post read, “(I) got a call that there’s been a fire at our church in the fellowship hall/classrooms building. No one is hurt, but major damage. Leaving a conference in Phoenix to get home. Please pray....”
He didn’t know the cause or the extent of the fire, but after Ashley took a call from his wife, Jenifer, he headed back to Tucson to see if there would still be a church standing to hold an Easter Sunday service.
The initial concern on his mind, though, was whether anyone was hurt.
“Thankfully we only lost property and not life,” said Ashley, who has been the pastor at the 25-year-old Tortolita Presbyterian Church for the past five years. “I wasn’t sure what to expect. I didn’t know if the entire building was going to be completely gone or if it was just going to be in the kitchen.
“You have all kinds of questions, you know, because there have been a string of arsons at churches in the last year. So, that certainly was a concern and a question,” the pastor said.
The fire in the church’s multipurpose hall, which is thought to have started due to an electrical or mechanical malfunction in the refrigerator, began some time after 3 p.m. on Sunday, April 17 and extinguished itself over the next day without ever burning into the attic.
Had someone opened a door while the black, 600-degree F. smoke filled the building, a sudden rush of air could have instantly fueled the fire, forming a back draft, and the building could have exploded and injured or killed whoever opened the door.
But, during that Monday, the few people working in the offices next door never noticed any smoke. Though Ashley said he came close to coming over to the hall, he was distracted by with a co-worker and never managed to make it there.
From the outside, there are very few signs of the fire. The small cracks around the doors are black from the smoke, but not enough to notice unless one looks closely. The window beside the door is black, but could easily be mistaken for a dark, unlit room.
Ashley said the fire inspector was at the church for about seven hours and called in a secondary inspector who was a specialist in appliance fires. The inspectors told him the fire burned so hot, and so fast, that it consumed all of the oxygen and put itself out before it destroyed the entire building.
The insurance agency, inspectors and the fire restoration company all told Ashley the same thing.
“They had never seen anything like this where it burned that hot, and did this much smoke and heat damage, but didn’t destroy the whole building,” he said. “It never got into the attic, and if it would have, the whole building would have gone down.”
Last Saturday, members of the church along with members from other churches around the area all came to the church to help put up tents and restore a sense of hope and comfort for all members of the church, old and young.
“The timing of all of this, being Holy Week,” Ashley said Saturday. “Yesterday was the day of sadness and grief with it being Good Friday and the day Jesus died, and today is kind of that middle day between the death, and tomorrow is the resurrection. So today we are here to do some cleanup, to come up with some space for ministry to happen tomorrow… and so we are preparing for the resurrection, and a new beginning for this church.”
Ashley said the church’s insurance will cover the restoration, which is expected to take three to six months. From there, it will be up to the church to fund the mandatory code-upgrades.
To donate to the church, located at 10710 N. Thornydale Road, call 572-1210 or visit www.tortolita.org.