'It was spectacular. And it was horrible'

A view from above shows the extent of the damage to St. Matthew's Lutheran Church after a fire destroyed the church's roof and steeple on Jan. 13, 1965.

Nancy Kruger still recalls the collective gasp from onlookers 50 years after the massive steeple from St. Matthew's Lutheran Church on King Street plummeted to the ground in flames.

It hit with such force that the spire's tip was buried 18 feet in the ground.

Tuesday marks the 50th anniversary of the fire that destroyed the roof and steeple of the historic church at 405 King Street, which was incorporated in 1840 and moved into the King Street location in 1872. At 255 feet, it's the tallest building in Charleston, and in 1965 was the tallest building in South Carolina.

The church at 10 a.m. is holding a ceremony in its courtyard on King Street in honor of the Charleston Fire Department, which fought the blaze and ultimately saved the church from total ruin, said Liane Ziel, the parish administrator.

"It was a horrible gasp," said Kruger, 75, a lifelong member of St. Matthew's and the church archivist. "I still find it hard to talk about."

According to church records, the fire started about 6:50 p.m., on Jan. 13, 1965, after an incandescent light ignited some painting materials in the church. Flames then engulfed the roof. The fire appeared to be under control by 8:45 p.m. But then wind spread it to the steeple, which fell around 10 p.m.

It took about 18 months to repair the roof and rebuild the steeple, Kruger said.

Biemann Othersen, 84, a retired physician and lifelong member of the church, said he was in Boston pursuing medical training in 1965, but he got a call from someone telling him his beloved church was on fire. He remembers the call, he said, but not who called him.

"It was as if someone was calling me about a dear friend who was on his deathbed," Othersen said.

Ted Mappus, 88, another lifelong member and a former state representative, said he was at home in West Ashley when he got a call about the church fire.

He rushed downtown and joined many others who had gathered to see what was going on. He got there in time to watch the steeple fall, he said. "It was spectacular," he said. "And it was horrible."

Mappus said he joined the church council that night in a meeting at a nearby police station. The group decided to rebuild before the fire was extinguished, he said.

Charleston Fire Chief Karen Brack said she greatly appreciates the church recognizing the fire department. "What a great thing for them to do," she said.

The St. Matthew's fire was significant, Brack said, as is any fire that involves a church steeple. Those structures are unstable, she said.

Kruger said that even though the event was horrible, the outpouring of help and support from the community was beautiful. One donation even came from a child who sold golf balls to raise extra money, she said.

Ziel said it's important for the church to mark the event. "We want to take a moment to pause and pray and be grateful we're still here 50 years later."

Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich.