See our exclusive photos of flames licking into the sky along NE Sandy Blvd., as firefighters did their best to save the complex owned by, and which provided the meeting space for, the Eastside Foursquare Church. And, discover why one of their pastors looked so calm on TV as this story was reported …
Looking south at the back of the building where members of the Eastside Foursquare Church worshiped at their Quality Inns & Suites complex on NE Sandy Blvd., it’s clear to see fire licking out of the structure as Portland Fire & Rescue struggle to gain control of the blaze..
Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Up until 2004, the motels, restaurant, and night club at 9743 NE Sandy Boulevard – that’s where I-205, Portland Boulevard, and Sandy converge – were considered the scourge of Parkrose. The three-building complex served as a base for criminals to operate; its main patrons were prostitutes, pimps, drug dealers, and users.
When neighbors found out that the Eastside Foursquare Church – at that time meeting at NE 100th Avenue and NE Glisan Street — had purchased the property, many of them questioned the wisdom of that real estate acquisition.
Earlier this year, the Parkrose Business Association held their monthly luncheon meeting in the second floor room, at the Parkrose Airport Quality Inns & Suites, now blackened by the fire.
From feared crime den to traveler’s haven
“It took us quite a while to clean out the old nightclub – complete with a big built-in bar, dance floor – and yes, a disco ball,” one of the church’s ministers, Pastor David Walmer, told us. “We started worshiping in the former upstairs nightclub area in January 2005.”
Instead of begging for money to fund their church projects, Eastside Foursquare rehabilitated the motel rooms – bringing one section up to Quality Inns & Suites’ top-notch ratings – and cleaned and redecorated the rooms in the westerly building to meet Rodeway Inn’s budget standards. They started renting rooms to business travelers, and opened the “Sacred Grounds” coffee shop.
As crooks and low-lifes drifted away from their former haunt, groups like the Parkrose Business Association started meeting at the facilities.
Firefighters pump hundreds of gallons of water per minute into the second story meeting room as fire ravages the Eastside Foursquare Church’s meeting and community room.
Fire destroys meeting area
On April 26, a fire broke out on the second floor of the complex’s center building.
“About 7:15 p.m. a fire was called in,” said Portland Fire & Rescue (PF&R) spokesman Lt. Allen Oswalt, speaking as he was standing just south of the Quality Inn and Suites office on NE Sandy Boulevard. “The fire was pretty well advanced by the time firefighters arrived. They reported seeing a column of smoke while on their way – and when they saw the flames, called for a second alarm at 7:24 p.m.”
Just when firefighters know down the fire in one area, it flairs up in another.
The smoke from the fire is so thick; it obliterates the two story structure.
A second alarm called, and then a third
Firefighters hooked up hose lines and raced into the burning building, up the twisting staircase, looking for the fire’s origin.
“We’re having a really difficult time locating the seat of the fire,” Oswalt told us that evening. “There is a lot of heat and thick, dark smoke. They didn’t know it when they arrived, but firefighters found that the fire had worked its way into the attic space, and is spreading throughout the building.”
Firefighters are evacuated from the roof, and inside the building, as the battalion chief calls for a third alarm.
As conditions continued to deteriorate, the PF&R Battalion Chief in command called for a third alarm at 7:35.
“A third alarm brings more firefighters and equipment to the scene,” Oswalt explained. “Also, it pulled all of the firefighters out of the building. The battalion chief was worried about the structure of the building becoming weakened, and that it might fall in on firefighters.”
With all fire crews out of harm’s way, fire trucks extended ladders with giant snorkel nozzles attached to them, and started to flood the building with water from above. Multiple water streams pumped thousands of gallons of water in through the windows of the upper rooms.
“We’ve pretty well knocked the fire down,” Oswalt reported at 8:30 p.m. “Firefighters are working their way back in there to extinguish whatever’s left of the fire. We have it pretty well isolated now.”
From on the ground, and from snorkel rigs atop the trucks’ ladders, firefighters drench the burning structure with water, hoping to quench the blaze.
All found safe; guests relocated
Hilda Schmidt, a guest staying in a Quality Inn & Suites room in the center building, was moving her belongings to the easterly building when she spoke with us. “A little after 7:00 p.m., we heard the fire alarm go off and the lights flash. Staff came and told us to leave our room. But they’ve relocated us to another room here.”
Oswalt confirmed Schmidt’s statement. “We have no reported injuries, no smoke inhalation, no firefighters are injured.”
Suspected fire source identified as building burns
As we took notes and photos during the fire, a man came up and told a television videographer that his sister told him that she, or her friends, felt they might be partly responsible for the fire.
“A drama group was meeting up there,” said the man who declined to identify himself at the scene. “They think they may have left a light on and the ‘prop room’. It might have touched off the fire.” The man’s sister then walked up, and suggested he not speak with us, and left the area.
The investigation began immediately after the fire was extinguished and continued throughout the next two days and nights, we later learned from PF&R’s Lt. Rich Tyler. “PF&R Investigations activated members from the Metro Fire Investigative Task Force (MFIT) who conducted more than 50 interviews in the two days since the fire.”
Investigators determined that the fire did originate in a second-floor room called the Drama Room, Tyler confirmed. “The Drama Room was used to store props and costumes. Ignition involved an incandescent clamp light and stored materials in the Drama Room. Investigators now estimate the loss of property and contents to be near $850,000.”
After an intense hour-long battle, firefighters gain the upper hand on the fire.
Spiritual faith keeps pastor calm
When Pastor David Walmer talked with television reporters at the scene, many of the news gathers noted his composure when being interviewed.
“What I said that night is true,” Walmer later told us. “It is ‘just a building’. And, a church is more than a building; a church is its people. For some reason, I felt calm that evening; perhaps it’s my faith.”
The following day, when police investigators walked him through the building, Walmer said he took some snapshots along the way.
“I was moved to tears when I looked over those pictures,” admitted Walmer. “While it’s ‘just a building’, it’s a building where there were baptisms, marriages, and funerals – really human things. Already, [that meeting space] represents a lot of history.”
Walmer, and the church’s lead minister, Pastor Eric Bahm, say that they and their congregation of about 350 members are in Parkrose there to stay, as is their “strategic partner”, Freedom House, a Christian rehabilitation program offering men help with addictions and life-controlling problems.
“We’re meeting on Sunday [May 2] at 6:30 p.m. to talk about it,” Walmer said. “It will be at the Portland Foursquare Church, 1302 SE Ankeny Street. The public is invited.”
Pastor gives thanks
“Our neighbors, churches and business have come out to express their love and support,” Walmer said. “They have been very gracious. And, we’re thankful for Portland’s firefighters; they did a terrific job. I even saw some carrying out undamaged food from the coffee shop that could be used by Freedom House.
“The church building is destroyed. But the work of the church goes on. The church is the people. We’re just a little part of the greater ‘church of Portland’. This sense of community, family, and shared faith in Jesus Christ helps us move on,” Walmer concluded.
© 2010 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News