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Fire from Lightning: St. Anthony of Padua (St. Louis)

When we think about all the ways a fire can start, almost anything can provide the right combination for a dangerous outbreak. We usually first think of the more ‘typical’ fire starters: unattended candles, carelessly tossed cigarettes, faulty electric panels, and outlets. But the truth is that fires can ignite from unlikely sources, and it’s best to have protective measures in place, just in case. One of the ‘fire starters’ that is somewhat off the grid but can wreak havoc is lightning.

One case of when lightning had devastating effects is when a fire began at St. Anthony of Padua in St. Louis, Missouri. This fire took place on April 28, 1994, at 8:26 am. Lightning was the cause of this fire, which set off a chain of events in the combustible area below the roof. In a strange coincidence, lightning struck the building twice on that day, fire coming from the 2nd strike.

St. Anthony of Padua is one of the tallest buildings in the St. Louis area, and it is also located on top of a hill – prime real estate for a lightning strike. The building was constructed in a cross shape, with a cupola in the center. As you might guess, that’s exactly where lightning struck. A church service was in session at the time of the strike, and thanks to a fast response, everyone was safely evacuated.

As it was a building with vaulted ceilings, there was a strong possibility that the fire could cause the building to collapse. So instead of entering the building to fight the fire, the firefighters opted to extinguish the fire from the outside. One hundred forty-four (144) firefighters were deployed to fight the fire. By 10:25 am, the fire was contained, and by noon, it was officially extinguished.

An investigation of the fire revealed a few things. First, the inspection showed that it was combustible materials in the cupola – items such as wood – that caught fire first. Once ignited, the fire strengthened and spread to the attic, then the roof.

Since lightning was a real possibility due to the design and location of the church, it did have a lightning system installed. However, during the investigation following the fire, fire inspectors discovered that the installation and maintenance of the system weren’t up to NFPA code. While there had been repairs and modifications to the system over the years, it didn’t appear that the system had been tested following those changes.

It is also possible that the lightning system suffered damage during the first lightning strike that occurred earlier that day, around 5 am. Any damage from the first strike would have prevented the second strike from being guided safely to the ground.

While lightning strikes are somewhat rare, if your property is especially susceptible, it’s better to be prepared for it. In fact, in your particular situation, the law may even require it. If so, making sure it’s properly installed, maintained, and tested is critically important.

The fire at St. Anthony of Padua reminds us how important it is to be prepared for as many possibilities as you can. Protective measures such as automatic sprinklers, alarm systems and flameproofing all provide the chance for the best outcome. 

Flameproofing is one of the smartest preventative steps you can take, as flameproofed objects become non-combustible and no longer contribute to the spread and severity of a fire. Certainly, that would have made a significant difference in this fire.

Manhattan Flameproofing, in the business for over 5 decades, can meet all your flameproofing needs as well as address all of your fire-related concerns and questions. Give us a call today if we can serve your business in any way. We’d also be happy to offer you a free, no-obligation estimate: 1-800-268-7993 

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