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Huge Blaze Strikes Historic Westport Church

WESTPORT, Conn. – Members of the Saugatuck Congregational Church looked on in disbelief early Monday as white smoke poured out of the back of their church.

"I was just here," said Lisa Tantillo. "I was just so upset. I don't live very far away from here. I had to come down and see."

The fire broke out at 9:55 p.m. Sunday, according to Westport resident Sal Liccione. "You could see the flames from Main Street," he said. It wasn't an explosion, but the back of the building was suddenly fully involved in flames, he added.

Several area fire crews, including departments from Norwalk, Wilton, Weston and Fairfield, were called to assist with the blaze, which started in the rear of the church. At about 11:30 p.m. Sunday, fire crews were ordered to evacuate the building. Shortly after, a portion of the rear roof collapsed. No injuries were reported.

Some emergency crews were beginning to leave the scene at about 2:30 a.m. A fire marshal confirmed "lots of damage" but would not be specific. Most of the damage appeared to be in the back of the large building.

The minister and the head of the board of trustees were behind the building, watching as crews fought to get the fire under control, said Mary Anne West, community liaison for the church. Firefighters climbed a ladder to peer into a window at the front of the building, looking in at the roof. At about 12:20 a.m., flames licked at the back of the roof.

West said the church's organ "appears to be lost," but the steeple and sanctuary seemed to be intact.

The church had just undergone a $2 million renovation, its website said. West confirmed that the Saugatuck Nursery School, located in a part of the building hit by fire, recently renovated a meeting room into a classroom. The school had become "totally state of the art," West said.

The church is also used by a variety community groups, and numerous Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are held there every week, West added.

The fire came just four days before the church's annual Thanksgiving feast. Every year, it hosts community feasts that are open to everyone on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Usually, about 300 meals are served on each occasion.

West said the church still plans to host its feast, although it won't be in its usual location at the church. "We've had numerous offers already," she said. "We believe the community of Westport will be 100 percent behind us." The church has been part of Westport for about 179 years.

The Post Road was closed early Monday between Imperial Avenue and Compo Road because of the blaze.

A total of 63 firefighters from six towns responded to the fire. The blaze was placed under control around 3:45 a.m., and remained under investigation by the Westport Fire Marshal’s Office, Westport Police Department and State Fire Marshal’s Office.

The fire marshal said it would be a while before any information would be available on the source of the fire or the full extent of the damage.

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