St. John's Fire

By: Erica Hurtt
By: Erica Hurtt

It's probably not the way the Sycamore Fire Department wanted to make it into the record books. Last week, the department battled the largest backdraft explosion in U.S. history.

"It's definitely the biggest fire I've ever seen," said Sycamore firefighter Bill Reynolds.

Reynolds was one of the backdraft's victims. The explosion ripped the roof off St. John's Church on February 9, 2004 at about 4:30 p.m., knocking Reynolds off his feet and burning his skin.

"We go out of the station everyday and do the best we can. Sometimes we come up on small fires, sometimes we come up on big fires," said Reynolds.

Fire experts say a backdraft occurs when heat and fire gases build up in a building with no where to go. When oxygen finally meets the flames, a major explosion occurs. Experts say the stone church created a perfect backdraft because its masonry stone construction and Plexiglas-covered windows kept oxygen out.

"In a normal fire you'll see the flames break the windows or the roof trying to find oxygen. I really had never seen anything of this magnitude," said Sycamore Fire Chief Bill Riddle.

Exactly what caused the fire is still a bit of a mystery, but Chief Riddle says they've traced it back to a small blaze that started in the church's organ blower more than 24 hours before the explosion. Firefighters applied water, removed charred materials and used thermal imaging to look for embers, but something went undetected. It built up to the dramatic explosion and fire that destroyed the church.

"We did everything we could do, but it still happens," said Riddle.

Chief Riddle says the good news is both his injured firefighters are recovering, and given the magnitude of the blast, it could have been a lot worse.

Reynolds was moved to a rehab facility Thursday for a lengthy physical therapy program. Brad Belanger was also injured. He plans to return to full time duty in early March.

Federal investigators say they'll use this fire for case studies in the future.


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