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Westminster College building damaged in fire

Westminster College building damaged in fire

June 16th, 2017 by Helen Wilbers in Local News

Faulty wiring is the suspected cause of Wednesday evening's fire at a Westminster College office building, Fire Chief Kevin Coffelt said. The building's roof caved in and the interior was damaged enough to prevent a fire marshal from entering yesterday.

Photo by Helen Wilbers /Fulton Sun.

A Wednesday evening fire at Westminster College damaged an office space in a converted brick home, according to Fulton Fire Chief Kevin Coffelt.

No injuries were reported and adjacent buildings were unharmed.

Rob Crouse, Westminster's director of media and public relations, believes the college was lucky the fire didn't spread further.

"We have this beautiful historic campus, and one of the worries when you have older buildings like this is something like that," Crouse said.

Crouse and Coffelt confirmed a Westminster employee was at the building,  327 W. 7th St., when the fire broke out. The structure was used as an office for Information Technology and enterprise data management.

"Ordinarily, at 7:30 at night, no one would have been at that building," Crouse added. "It's hard to tell how far it would have gone."

Crouse said the employee was on the second floor when the internet connection went out. The employee stepped into the hallway, noticed smoke coming from the attic and immediately called 911.

The Fulton Fire Department responded, followed by Central Callaway Fire Protection District and South Callaway Fire Protection District.

"We have two security staff members who are volunteer firemen who were dispatched," Crouse said.

Cathy McGeorge, who owns the Loganberry Inn just down the street, was walking her dog when she saw the fire rise from the building.

"There was fire and smoke, and it just kept getting worse," McGeorge said. "It took them a long time to get it out."

She watched while four fire engines arrived and the elderly occupant of a neighboring building was evacuated as a precaution. Coffelt said it took about 90 minutes to tame the flames.

He added the damage to the building was extensive. To be safe, firefighters had to remain outside the building and spray water, Coffelt said. Much of the roof collapsed, though the building still stands.

"The Missouri State Fire Marshal's Office along with Fulton Fire Department investigators determined the fire originated in the attic, but they were unable to determine the cause due to the structure being unsafe to enter," he said. "(The) occupant did report having electrical issues lately."

Crouse drove to the scene from Jefferson City, arriving when the fire was mostly under control.

"They had a fireman up on a ladder shining a spotlight into the attic," he said.

He added the insurance assessor and more inspectors were expected to come by Thursday and make a final pronouncement on the fire's cause and the extent of the damage.

Aside from being part of Westminster's campus, the building has some additional historic value. According to a 1918 edition of "The Catalogue of the Phi Delta Theta Fraternity," it was at one time the home of Ovid Bell.

Bell founded the Ovid Bell Press, still operating in Fulton, and ran the Fulton Gazette. The address is also mentioned in a historic document dating 1913, meaning the building is more than100 years old.

College President Benjamin Ola. Akande said dealing with the fire demonstrated what a close-knit college community Westminster has, "and how blessed we are to be in a special community such as Fulton."

He also credited Fulton, Central Callaway and South Callaway fire officials who responded quickly thanks to the dedicated employee who was working late and called 911 officials.

"I want to thank them on behalf of all of us at Westminster for volunteering their time in this courageous service to the community," he said. "I also want to thank all the Westminster staff and members of the Fulton community who rushed to the scene to see what they could do. This outpouring of help and support was greatly appreciated."

Akande added he is grateful no one was hurt.

"A fire which could have raged out of control was contained, thanks to the quick responses of all involved," he said. "Items lost due to fire can always be replaced. Lives cannot. So we are fortunate that the outcome was not much worse."