As smoke billowed from Village Baptist Church in Bowie, a firefighter asked the Rev. Bruce Salmon if anything needed to be brought out of the smoldering sanctuary. Salmon paused for a moment and then remembered the cross.
Capt. Joe Aiello rushed into the burning sanctuary and retrieved a two-foot gold cross. It has become the rallying symbol for a church that may have lost a sanctuary Jan. 8 but is going to keep on going.
"The fact that the cross was brought out was really a sign of hope. People were in tears," said Salmon, pastor for 15 years. "There is a real sense of loss, but also there is hope that we are going to rebuild."
Aiello, 42, a volunteer firefighter for 26 years, lives for those kinds of moments. The front of the church was still burning and filled with smoke when he went in for the cross. He said: "I stepped through the fire, went to the altar and brought the cross out, because the cross is the very symbol of the church." The one-alarm fire caused $350,000 damage to the sanctuary and injured one firefighter.
On Jan. 9, members of the church gathered to pray at a new place: the Bowie Volunteer Fire Department, which not only helped put out the blaze but also is helping the congregation to start anew.
Church members started out by praying over the charred remains of the church at 1950 Mitchellville Rd. Then they went over to the fire station on Pointer Ridge Road for church services.
"It was important for us to do that. People need to see it to grapple with the reality," Salmon said.
Dianne Webster, the church's choir director, said that even though the fire damaged the church's organ and piano--and they have been hauled away for repairs--she is confident the choir can keep going with a small keyboard set up in the firehouse.
"It was devastating when you first see the building," Webster said. "The church is my second home. All of my relatives are there, and even though we are not related, we are all family. We are having rehearsals and performing as if nothing happened."
On Sunday, church members found a new, temporary home. They held services at the Bowie Alliance Church, right down the street at 1925 Mitchellville Rd.
"We are thrilled and grateful," Webster said. "At 8:30 a.m., we have our early service. At 9:45 a.m., they worship, and we have Sunday school. At 11:15 a.m., we worship, and they have Sunday school."
"It is something that shows what we all believe in at our basic core, and that is the love of Jesus Christ binds us together," she said.
Village Baptist Church, built in 1980, has about 250 members, primarily from the Bowie area. In addition to weekly services, the church opens its doors to community groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous.
Salmon said that when he left the church Jan. 7, AA and a church committee were meeting in the building. "When both groups left the building, everything was fine," Salmon said.
Prince George's County fire department spokesman Chauncey Bowers said firefighters were called to the church at 6:52 the next morning.
"When we got there, they had a large amount of fire involving the offices, foyer and rear of the sanctuary," Bowers said.
The minister was called a few minutes later. He lives nearby, and he rushed over. "When I got there, the flames were shooting off the ceiling, and the steeple had already fallen," Salmon said. "I was surprised that it was such a big blaze. Every person who came out, it was the same expression of shock and sadness."
Bowers said it took about 60 firefighters 20 minutes to control the fire. He and Aiello said the firefighters worked hard to save the church.
Aiello said: "The first guys that went in did one hell of a job. They could have lost that entire building if they had not gone into the church and stopped the fire from spreading."
Bowers said the preliminary investigations suggest that the blaze may have been caused by a fire in the mechanical systems.
Also investigating are officials from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The ATF has investigated all church burnings since the rash of church fires across the South several years ago.
Meanwhile, the congregation is trying to figure out its next steps. The front part of the church, with the offices, was destroyed. In addition, other parts of the church had smoke and structural damage.
But despite the loss, Salmon said, "We plan to rebuild at the same location."
Lee Havens, Bowie Volunteer Fire Department chief, said the church could use the Pointer Ridge Road meeting hall even if the building wasn't destroyed by fire. "The church is part of the community. We will do anything to help them."
Those wishing to donate may send contributions to Building Fund, Village Baptist Church, 1950 Mitchellville Rd., Bowie, Md. 20716.
CAPTION: The Rev. Bruce Salmon listens to announcements at the start of a service at a fire station's meeting room. Next to him is the cross that a firefighter saved.
CAPTION: Betty Swaffield plays during a service of Village Baptist Church, which held services at the Pointer Ridge Road fire station after the church burned.