STEUBENVILLE -John Rooney finally got to meet the men of three turn of the Steubenville Fire Department under better circumstances.
Rooney stopped by the North Street Fire Station headquarters to hear words of thanks and appreciation and to receive a fire department mug and a T-shirt for reacting quickly and calmly when he smelled smoke in the St. Peter Catholic Church social hall shortly before midnight on Oct. 13.
Rooney had been asked to substitute for a volunteer at the Perpetual Adoration Chapel in the basement of the North Fourth Street church.
HONORED — Steubenville firefighters thanked John Rooney for his fast reaction after smelling smoke in the social hall of St. Peter Catholic Church on Oct. 13. The firefighters credited Rooney for saving the historic structure. Taking part in a ceremony at the North Street Fire Department headquarters were, from left, firefighters Dave Coladonato and Gray Nagy; Rooney; Capt. David Sullivan; and firefighter Terry Thompson. -- Dave Gossett
"When I am there that late I usually prop the chapel door open because it has such a tight seal at the bottom of the door. I thought I smelled smoke so I went up and checked the candles. Then I walked out into the social hall and smelled smoke. That's when I called 911 and told them they didn't need to send the heavy artillery but I was smelling smoke. I went to open the church door and wait for the firefighters. I knew that was the one thing I could do," recalled Rooney.
According to veteran Firefighter Gray Nagy, that was exactly the right thing to do.
"We wish more people would do what John Rooney did. Too many people are either embarrassed to call the fire department for help, or they don't believe the fire smell or smoke is that serious. So they wait before they call for help. And a simple problem becomes a more serious issue," said Nagy.
"I let the firefighters into the church and just tried to stay out of the way. They were immediately looking for the source of the smoke and I was able to reach our pastor, the Rev. Tim Huffman, at the rectory. He came over to get the blessed sacrament out of the chapel and I went in with him and then we got out of the building," continued Rooney.
"I wasn't nervous while the firefighters were there, but later on when I realized how close we came to losing St. Peter's to a fire I got chills," Rooney said.
"Inspector Steve Bowers told me a few days later that if the fire had reached upstairs into the church, the firefighters would have had to call for help. They would not have been able to fight the fire by themselves. That's what gave me chills," declared Rooney.
Firefighter Terry Thompson said he smelled smoke as soon as he pulled up in the fire truck.
"I knew it was the smell of wood burning and immediately told Capt. (David) Sullivan we had a structure fire. You could smell it," Thompson said.
"When we walked down into the basement we saw a light haze of smoke near the cooking area. We started looking around and kept trying to convince ourselves it wasn't serious. I thought maybe some incense hadn't been disposed of properly or maybe a candle was burning. But when Assistant Chief Mike Taylor shined a flashlight into the kitchen area he saw smoke building up and that's when we had to break down the door to gain access to the kitchen," remarked Nagy.
And that is when the firefighters saw an orange glow from a wall and a back room filled with smoke.
"We used a thermo-imaging camera to scan the walls and saw the fire behind the walls. The outlet between two refrigerators had been fried and the fire was working its way up the wall. We could tell the entire wall was warm. We really had to go after it at that point," continued Nagy.
"I believe we were just 10 to 15 minutes away from that fire spreading upstairs into the main church. Inspector Bowers was in the church by the main altar and he radioed down to us he was seeing smoke coming from the basement. That's when it was getting hairy. If the fire had spread we would have had to call out all resources to fight it. There was a brief moment when we thought it had spread upstairs. But we got it stopped in time," explained Sullivan.
Nagy said firefighters used two extinguishers on the fire and, "that's when we knew it was worse than we thought."
"If the fire had gotten into the main church with all of that wood we probably would have lost the church. And that would have been a shame because it is a beautiful, historic structure. And I can tell you we didn't want to be the fire crew that would have been known for losing St. Peter's," declared Nagy.
Firefighters remained on the scene for approximately three hours to make sure the fire would not rekindle.
According to the official history of the parish compiled by The Steubenville Register, a small brick church and burial ground were provided at the present site on North Fourth Street.
A new church was built at the location in the 1850s and the present-day church was built between 1905 and 1907 by Irish immigrants.
"We have been endowed with a priceless treasure and we are most grateful to God for protecting it and the people of the parish," Huffman wrote in the church bulletin.
Huffman has called upon parishioners to help preserve the church, "for future generations. We owe that to the past generations who built this beautiful church and we owe it to those who follow us."