Claremore Daily Progress

August 19, 2013

Century-old Okay church falls to flames

D. J. Smoot
CNHI

OKAY —

A 100-year-old landmark burned to the ground early Sunday, the work of what some townsfolk believe was an arsonist.

Cody Austin Thompson, a next-door neighbor of the destroyed United Methodist Church, said his dog alerted him to the blaze. He stepped outdoors just before midnight Saturday to a thick haze of smoke. By the time he got to the phone to report his findings, Thompson said, the church “just started blazing and lit up my yard like a Christmas tree.”

“My dog doesn’t bark unless it’s very important, so I knew something was wrong,” he said. “I walked out onto the porch and thought my glasses were fogging up, the smoke was so thick, then just all of a sudden it just started blazing.”

Police Chief Terry Gorman and firefighters on the scene Sunday morning stopped short of declaring the fire suspicious, but the Oklahoma State Fire Marshal’s Office was called to investigate the origins of the blaze. Gorman declined to discuss the fire further, citing the investigation, or whether it might be connected to vandalism reported around town during the past couple of weeks.

Thompson and Sandra Gable, another neighbor whose family has attended the church for generations, held back nothing about their suspicions. Gable said vandals broke out a stained-glass window the same weekend that vandals struck the school.

“Last weekend they broke the windows out, and now they’ve burnt it down,” said Gable, who was away from home camping Saturday night. “This is a terrible loss — that is God’s house, and our church doors have always been open to anyone … anyone.”

Gable said she found evidence a couple of weeks ago that indicated someone had tried to break into her garage. When the church windows were broken out, Gable said, she heard noises, but she thought the sounds were coming from the river to the south, so she never investigated.

“This is a crying shame,” Gable said about the destruction of the church, which she called a historic landmark. “We need night patrols in our town — we’re taxpayers here and we deserve protection.”

Okay firefighter Mike Blackwell said that when first responders arrived early Sunday, the original structure was engulfed by flames. Firefighters were able to save most of a newer addition that adjoined the sanctuary.

“It was fully involved when we got here,” Blackwell said. “When you have a structure that old, that wood gets dry, and the fire just took over.”

Gorman said Sunday afternoon that it was unknown when an investigator from the fire marshal’s office would arrive.