Westport Presbyterian Church Pastor Scott Myers released a deep breath Friday as he surveyed heavy damage to his beloved community church.
“It’s kind of a — it’s a shock,” he said, still visibly shaken hours after a fire tore through the landmark that has stood in Westport for 107 years.
Fire officials blamed the blaze on the installation of a rooftop air conditioner. Combustible materials ignited, leading to a multimillion-dollar fire, they said.
Myers had a blank stare as he surveyed the charred remains. Any chance for quiet reflection was consumed by distraught passers-by. Some were strangers, and some were longtime community members offering help.
“I’m real sad about this,” one clearly distressed stranger said. “Do you think you can rebuild it?”
Dozens of well-wishers repeated the same question Friday as they searched the pastor’s face for signs of hope.
It was one of many answers he just couldn’t give. Not yet, anyway. Insurance adjusters, fire investigators and engineers will have to weigh in. Reports could take days, weeks or months.
“There’s insurance. The question is: What’s the structural integrity?” Myers said, motioning to the stone walls that remain standing. “We’re just going to have to live this out day by day.”
A peek inside the sanctuary on Friday morning gave the pastor some sense of hope.
“I saw a place that
be able to be restored,” he said.
The pews were intact, but covered with water. The pipe organ wasn’t visible, but he doubts it could have survived both the fire and the water.
Firefighters doused the structure at 201 Westport Road with water for hours Thursday evening to keep the stone walls from collapsing. The fire was reported about 5:30 p.m. after someone working inside smelled smoke and called 911. Quickly, smoke and flames were consuming the building.
The church congregation has a rich history dating back 176 years. The congregation has dwindled to a few dozen members, but through various programs the church touches many lives. In recent years the church rented office space to several groups and nonprofit agencies.
“For us it’s love of God and love of neighbor,” Myers said.
Westport Cooperative Services operated Meals on Wheels and other programs at the site. Westport Center for the Arts and Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty also operated from the office space. No one has been able to inspect the office space, but it appears that flames consumed the interior.
Pam Seymour, executive director for Westport Cooperative Services, said she smelled the smoke as it filled the office building, which connects to the church.
She ran out of the building just in time.
“As soon as I turned around I saw flames starting to shoot out around the roof. It was pretty scary to think that we were just up there. We’re very lucky,” Seymour said.
A day-care center on the church property, Willow Woods, was largely unscathed, said day-care director JoAnne Loftus.
She evacuated about a dozen children who remained at the building when the fire was discovered.
“They weren’t scared,” she said of the kids. “Mothers picking up were terrified.”
Loftus hopes to open next week.
The congregation and office occupants aren’t as lucky. The offices lost everything from irreplaceable artwork to computers and paperwork. Boy Scout Troop 60 lost camping supplies and decades of records.
The congregation lost its gathering space, but not its spirit. The congregation will meet at 11:30 a.m. Sunday at Second Presbyterian Church. Many of the nonprofit agencies still are looking for office space, and the Westport Center for the Arts is looking to relocate many of its programs. The center’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day event already has been moved to Community Christian Church.
Myers said all denominations throughout the city have reached out to help.
He said he’s committed to the Westport area.
“The church is a real community church. We’ve been here 175 years. We don’t want to go too far,” Myers said.
Community members were relieved to hear Myers stress his commitment to the neighborhood. He has led the flock for 18 years.
“It’s a big deal to have these centers of community life, because otherwise what have you got?” Myers said.
Several years ago, community leaders met there to strategize protests against the Westport nightclub, XO. The club eventually closed.
Community members also met there when they feared the Westport branch of the Kansas City Public Library would close, said Jim Grow, president of Westport Neighbors United.
Grow isn’t a member, but he and his family felt welcome within the church for holiday meals, Halloween parties and much more.
“He’s done a lot for the community,” Grow said of the pastor.
Myers said the congregation was small, but growing.
“We just had a beautiful Christmas Eve service in there a few nights ago with more people than have been in there for a service in 20 years,” he said. “It was just coming alive.”
The congregation was in the middle of conducting a survey to determine what services might be offered in the future to people who live and work in the area.
On Friday it was Myers’ comforting words that once again provided guidance. He reached out to one man who expressed regret at having missed that last Christmas Eve service.
“Hopefully you can come back,” Myers said.