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Community bands together in crisis

A section of the United Church in Somerset West now lies in ruins after a fire raged through the place of worship, which is rich in heritage and a hub of activity.

The tragic incident occurred on Tuesday afternoon and had crowds of locals and passers-by looking on in shock as firefighters battled to douse the flames engulfing the building located on the corner of Bright and Andries Pretorius streets.

A section of Andries Pretorius Street was cordoned off to traffic as a result of the fire and motorists were required to make use of alternative routes.

According to spokesperson Jermaine Carelse, the City of Cape Town’s Fire and Rescue Services responded to the incident just before 15:00. Carelse said their response comprised of 20 firefighters, two fire engines, a rescue vehicle and a specialised aerial appliance.

“Upon arrival firefighters found a section of the church alight. The fire was contained after 16:00 and a considerable amount of time was spent on mop-up operations to extinguish the fire completely,” said Carelse. “No injuries were reported. The cause of the fire is still undetermined.”

Bevan Sylvester, United Church assistant minister, confirmed the congregation’s children’s hall, two Sunday school and Bible study rooms, as well as a boardroom were gutted in the fire. In light of the tragedy, Sylvester said: “I am absolutely shocked and utterly shattered. It is indeed a glim and dark day that will never be forgotten. However, our hope is in a living God and with our trust in Him I believe we will pull through.”

Sylvester further said that phones of staff members have not stopped ringing with people expressing their upset and disbelief. Both ministers have been comforting and reassuring congregation members, especially after learning that the fire was under control, he added.

An emergency meeting was called on Wednesday morning “as priority is the continuance of the worship of God and life of the church, as well as offering comfort to our people”.

While at the scene, a concerned parent told DistrictMail that his child was participating in a ballet class offered at the church moments before the fire broke out.

Sylvester confirmed that a ballet class of the Gail Hattingh School of Ballet was taking place in the hall adjacent to where the flames raged, but that everyone got out in time and unharmed.

Despite numerous calls to the ballet school, no-one could be reached for comment at the time of going to print.

Sylvester recalled being at Bridgewater Manor when senior minister George Marchinkowski phoned him and informed him that he received news that the church was on fire. “I immediately left Bridgewater Manor to go and see for myself. I did not believe that it was possible as George phoned me at 15:09 and I had left the office at 14:50 with no sign of anything,” recalled Sylvester.

“I arrived on the scene about 15:17. From Church Street, I could see thick smoke billowing from the church’s location. My heart sank – it was a horrible feeling.”

Sylvester expressed experiencing what he considered the worst possible situation when he was greeted by weeping and shocked congregation members who had gathered in the parking area in total devastation.

The church was started as a Presbyterian church in 1927 and the building bordering on Andries Pretorius Street is the original in which services were held until 1993 when the new section on Bright Street was inducted.

In the early 2000s it became United Church (Presbyterian-Congregational). The congregation has served as venue for many unmissable community events. Mere weeks ago, the church hosted a very successful Food, Fun and Family Festival and biannual Hospice fundraising and awareness concert.

“We are very fortunate to have other facilities on our premises to use as venues. The church itself, our kitchen, our main hall, the Link Cafe area, the library and the office block were not damaged, so we will try our best to let all the activities for which our property is used continue as smoothly as possible,” said Sylvester.

He added that the worship services planned for today (Thursday) and Sunday will continue, as well as a concert for Saturday.

“Our insurance broker was on the scene and we met with him again this morning. I would say that this is an important part of the way forward. There is much else to be done though, but our members are standing together to assist in whatever ways possible, said Sylvester.

“There have also been countless calls from people in the community offering help and support. This incident has been very tragic, but we are a community of faith. We know that He will be faithful as we rebuild and as we continue to strive to bringing healing and change to our society.

“I have to comment on the response from the Somerset West community, including pastors from other churches. It has been truly overwhelming.

“One is so encouraged to see how people can rise up and stand together at a time of crisis. We rely on people’s prayers as we re-erect our structures and work together for a transformed Somerset West.”

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